This week, an unusual post, in that it’s not actually written by me! After 9 months of being away from the UK, and a sneaking suspicion that my travels aren’t going to be ‘done’ by Christmas this year, as I had most recently thought, my Mum has decided that the mountain should come to Mohammed (as it were) and is visiting me in Chiang Mai for a month. I thought it would be quite interesting to get her views on what Thailand is like, given my perspective is definitely now of someone living here, albeit a long way from native, rather than a visitor. So, here she is, Mary Bard, writing about her first two weeks…happy reading! Ellen 🙂
A very happy guest!
First, I feel honoured to be invited to write a guest post for Ellen. I have been an avid reader of this blog ever since I dropped Ellen off at Heathrow when she was first setting out on this great adventure. When she suggested I come out to Thailand to visit her, I was reluctant at first – who wants their mother intruding on such an adventure?! But she persisted, and I agreed, and now I am so glad I did. But there won’t be any particularly deep thoughts here (that’s Ellen’s province). Instead I am going to write about those things which have, so far, struck me most about what is a completely new country to me.
Of course, I should call it the climate. It is seriously hot here. I arrived in Bangkok, and at first it was overwhelming: 35 degrees, very humid, overcast. But Chiang Mai, 350 miles north of Bangkok, is ‘cooler’ (only around 30 degrees) and I seem to have got used to it already. I’ve been here two weeks and I now just accept that you never need a coat or a cardigan, and that it will always be warm, whatever time of the day or night it is. It’s not sun-tanning weather – too hot for that – but it’s such a lovely change after England!
Modes of transportation
I’ll start with the downright scary. Ellen’s favoured method of transportation is the same as everyone else’s here: the scooter. On various tiny scooters I have seen: two schoolgirls (both in uniform, one sitting side-saddle on the back), elderly Thai ladies with their shopping in the basket on the front, whole families (small child standing at the front, Dad with his arms around the child while driving, Mum at the back with slightly older child in front of her), young men balancing huge loads while weaving in and out of the traffic . . . I could go on. I rarely see any crash helmets, and there doesn’t seem to be a Highway Code (or a minimum driving age!). Then there are the slightly more upmarket bikes with ‘sidecars’, which can contain anything from a dog, to a family, to a stall’s complete contents (including the stove and the wok).
As for the tuk tuks (think a cross between a scooter and a rickshaw), which in theory carry two passengers, and the song taus (essentially vans with benches along the sides which appear to have no upper limit in terms of passengers) . . . well, I’ve travelled on both. What Thai people don’t do, it seems, is walk. Too hot . . .
I’ve seen the statistics, and I told myself I would never get on the back of a bike. But here I am, whizzing around Chiang Mai behind Ellen (well, she very kindly goes VERY slowly when I’m with her), but definitely wearing a crash helmet – even if it does say ‘Lady Gaga’ on it.
I hadn’t eaten much Thai food before coming here, but now I am a definite fan. Pad Thai, chicken with cashew nuts, Spring rolls, chicken and coconut soup, mango with sticky rice, bananas in coconut milk (yum) – I’ve tried them all. And thanks to the Thai Farm Cooking School, I’ve made most of them too.
And they very kindly gave us a recipe book, so I can continue to make them when I get home. (Assuming I can find galangal, kaffir
lime leaves, and sweet eggplants at Sainsburys.) Not to mention the smoothies – my favourite is freshly made pineapple and coconut. So good! But there is virtually no wine here. Some places have bottled beer, and you occasionally see spirits, but mostly it’s (fresh) fruit juices.
Ellen had told me that Thailand is inexpensive for Westerners, but it still comes as something of a shock to see how inexpensive it is. My beautiful apartment along the corridor from Ellen’s costs around £200 for a month. Main courses are around £1. It’s true that you have to buy drinking water, but it costs 1 baht (2p) per litre. At the (amazing) Sunday Walking Street Market I bought armloads of shopping, including silk scarves, a dress, top and trousers, and still spent less than £20. The tuk tuk to the Market cost around £1.50. All of this presents a bit of a conundrum to this Westerner. On the one hand it feels like exploitation when we leave a 20 baht tip, and I realise that was 40p; on the other hand the tuk tuk driver is delighted with the tip and it’s probably not up to me to upset the local economy. But it does mean I don’t like to haggle, even when a stall holder expects me to. One stall holder obviously got fed up with me, and reduced the price anyway (from 280 baht to 200 baht) because I was his first customer of the evening. He then gave me a big smile and waved my 100 baht notes over all of his stock for ‘good luck’ – a genuine Thai local custom.
If you’ve been following Ellen’s blog, you’ll know massage is important to her. By way of preparation for my trip, she demonstrated Thai massage to me when she was back in England (she has a Certificate you know!). I’m glad she did, because my first experience of it here was at a roadside stall, and I think I might have accused the masseur of assault otherwise! He seemed to take particular delight in my whimpers every time another bone cracked. I have recently had a one hour full body Thai massage, with a (slightly) kinder masseuse, at a more upmarket place. Forget those lovely relaxing Swedish massages, which leave you feeling rested and calm. Thai massage is also known as ‘lazy man’s yoga’, because the practitioner puts your body into various yoga postures during the massage – whether it wants to go there or not. I was pulled, prodded, kneaded, and stretched; my fingers, toes, and even ears were pulled, knuckles cracked (mine, not theirs!), and the masseuse used her hands, elbows, knees and feet to manipulate me. Restful it is not! But I’m already looking forward to the next one – and at £3.50 an hour I can afford more. Here we do leave large tips . . .
I read that 94% of Thais are Buddhist – and Chiang Mai has around 300 temples to serve them. Buddhist monks in their orange robes and shaved heads are a feature of the city. Women are reminded that they must not touch a monk, even to offer alms (you place the offering in the monk’s bowl, without touching him), and (as in the Vatican!) must cover their arms and legs before entering a temple. But Thai Buddhism has also become integrated with folk beliefs such as ancestor worship. I have seen more spirit houses here even than temples. It still comes as a surprise to me when I see a ‘corporate’ spirit house – a grand version outside a large office block or a bank.
It is a pleasure to be able to write that Chiang Mai is a very clean city. I have seen very little litter, and NO dog poo. There are definitely things we could learn. However, I have also seen a small army of Thai women with brooms. I think the two things are related . . .
I have found the Thai people I have met to be almost universally friendly, smiling and helpful. Ellen has taught me to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Thai (my absolute minimum for any country I visit!), and local people react with real pleasure when I use my two words. Most do not speak English (how’s your Thai?), but they will try hard to meet your needs. The traditional Thai greeting, the wai, consists of a bow with the hands pressed together (as in prayer), and it still gives me a slight thrill when I am ‘wai-ed’. I am careful about returning the gesture, because there is a whole culture behind it, including where the hands are placed, how low the bow is, and so on, all of which relate to a person’s relative status. But I am a bit of an ‘elder’ here, so Thais tend to be forgiving. It’s a gentle etiquette.
I must not overstay my welcome on Ellen’s blog so I don’t have time to tell you about the elephants we saw today, so will just leave you a photo – but you can read about Ellen’s last visit there here! I have been here only two weeks, and have two more before I return to England. Ellen has yoga, jazz, more massage, and goodness knows what else lined up for me, so who knows what I might be writing at the end of my month with her. But I am so glad I said yes! Thank you, El.