Chiang Mai, Thailand Part One

Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant's spaghetti....
Sitting in the Kunming airport. This design makes me think of a giant’s spaghetti….

This past December I got away from Dalian for a week and visited Northern Thailand. I’m not a big fan of heat, so I wasn’t too tempted to go south for the beaches this time around…plus, I’ve been living in NE China: I’m as white as they come. So I opted for Chiang Mai, the capital in the North and one of the nicest places to travel to in that area of Tai Guo (Thailand in Pin yin).

The vacation came about because my school was getting ready to close down and I still hadn’t taken my five vacation days. I timed it so I’d be gone between two weekends, so I had just a little more than a week for this trip. I wanted to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and spend a bit of time in Thailand before jumping back over to Southern China for a day or two. Yeah, not gonna happen. I ended up pushing Cambodia from the to-see list (this time) and instead decided to spend a few days in Chiang Mai and then head over to Kunming, China for a four-day tour of the area south of Shangri La. I booked the tickets, all was good.

It was cheaper to do one-way flights, so my itinerary looked like: Dalian—Kunming, KM—Chiang Mai, CM—KM, KM—Dalian.

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On the descent to the CM International Airport I got chatting with a Chinese couple next to me. I had been switching back and forth from Mandarin to English talking to the flight attendants, so they weren’t sure how to speak to me. Finally we just talked in Chinese about our respective vacations. As I was disembarking a Chinese women a few year older than me struck up a conversation with me. She thought she heard me say I was living in Da Li, a city not too far from the Kunming area where we all boarded. I corrected her, saying it was Dalian, in the North East (Two days later she still insisted that I track her down when I got back to Da Li, so I either need to work on my pronunciation or she has serious selective hearing). We chatted a bit as we walked down the jetway, but then separated once she spotted a friend of hers.

After getting my luggage and lookin’ around for a place to exchange my Chinese RMB to the Thai Baht, the woman showed up again. I was asking the girl behind the counter what a taxi should cost from there to my hostel, but she wasn’t very helpful. Lisa, the Chinese woman I had been talking to, offered to let me share her cab, so we continued to talk as we waited. Her English was fantastic and my Chinese was apparently getting worse, so we mostly got along fine with English.

Once in the taxi—a sporty looking yellow jeep thing with a hatchback—the driver took most of our focus. His parents were from Kunming, so his Mandarin was great, but he also spoke English and Thai. He had a laugh like a hyena with emphysema, but his sense of humor and good attitude made you feel comfortable. Lisa’s hotel was before mine, so she hopped off first and then the driver took me about a mile or so away to my hostel—the Little Bird Hostel. It’s a mostly open-air backpacker hostel tucked deep in a neighborhood of twisting streets and closely packed buildings. A handful of travelers were lounging around in the “common area,” and as I walked in I nodded to a few without stopping.

I checked in with the short, long-haired owner and once he gave me my key I found my room and tossed my bag on the top bunk. I changed my shirt and took off, knowing I’d be back to chat with people once I got a lay of the land.

Come one...this is aweseome
Come one…this is awesome
A mote where the ancient wall used to be...
A mote where the ancient wall used to be…
These little altars are everywhere
These little altars are everywhere

It was a warm sunny day in Chiang Mai and as I walked along the cramped streets, weaving in and out of crowds, twisting around the vendors and merchants, I realized something: I wasn’t dressed right. For some reason I had been under the impression that it would be cooler up in the north. A few days before leaving Dalian I had bought a pair of hiking shoes and since I was spending more time in the cooler Kunming, I didn’t bring light clothing. Mistake, for several reasons.

As I was out scouring the streets for deals on sandals, shorts, and a hat, Lisa texted me and we decided to meet up for dinner. By the evening it was already evident that I also needed sunscreen. My face was getting that nice tomato-red tint to it that everyone just loves. Lisa turned out to be pretty cool, and she and I hung out those first two days while I was in Chiang Mai. We ate some Pad Thai (basically Thailand’s version of Fried Rice) and wondered around the old part of the city.

On my own I walked along what’s left of the old protective wall that used to border the city, and trekked down streets that were mostly empty. I enjoyed being away from the groups of tourists even though that’s exactly what I was. Eventually I bought some sandals and a pair of shorts.

On the third morning I got a call from my friend. Apparently the airlines cancelled my trip to Kunming. Why? No why. So they put me on a flight for the next day. No biggie, right? I still would have enough time to catch the tour in Kunming and all would be well.

I also finally hung out at the hostel and got to know the other travelers. As I talked and listened to them talk I thought about the trip I took to Beijing more than a year ago with Noelle. At the Red Lantern Hostel we met some cool folks traveling from Scotland, England, Spain, and even a married couple teaching in Dalian who, we found out, were practically our neighbors. Though I didn’t meet any people from NE China in that Hostel in Chiang Mai, I did get talking with a few English guys around my age. Two of them, Dean and Dave, were trekking around South East Asia, following their whims and hoping their money lasted. They planned to stay out for as long as they could, I think they said about 8 months. They’d been traveling for more than a month by the time I met them, and had already come up from southern Thailand.

Both of them were really cool and it was obvious they were just enjoying life and out to see as much as they could. The three of us hung out for a few hours, chatting with others from all over. One guy, a French man around 30 years old, seemed different than the rest of us staying there. He had a laid-back, almost sedate way about himself. I’d say it was the cliché surfer dude aura, but there was definitely some Zen thrown in there. He always laid in the same position on the common area platform—stretched out and ready to take a nap, it looked like. The only time he wasn’t nearly catatonic was when he was holding his large note pad a foot in front of his face. When I asked what he was working on the others around us perked up. They had gotten the answer to that very question the night before. He showed me the sketch book and at first I thought, “Oh, he’s making a comic,” but then I looked closer. There were bars representing data of some sort, odd markings reminiscent of cave drawings, and even stick figures doin’ all kinds of crazy things. I had no idea what I was looking at and I told him so.

Dean explained that it was some sort of graph that measures the moods and energy in a group of people over periods of time. The French Guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s what he understands of it,” but wouldn’t elaborate except to say how interesting it was watching everyone interact with one another. The graph or whatever it was seemed pretty amazing to me. It was clearly something he had thought a great deal about and each line and stroke of his pencil indicated a telling piece of info only he could decipher. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of it, though.

Later that same night Dean, David, Greg ( a young wiry English kid with a mop top), and I went out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Nik naks, trinkets, store-bought clothes, hand-made clothes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, magnets, and a hundred different types of food lined the streets and were packed into a few buildings. We waded through it all for about an hour, each of us bargaining for different things we wanted. I bought a bag that I knew I’d never use beyond this vacation. It was a simple brown bag with one strap and a white threaded design on the side. It hung low on my hip once it was around my shoulder, and if I were in any other geographical location I would have felt immediately foolish. But I was proud because I had haggled the guy down quite a bit. Negotiating in China has apparently made me much better. Even the other guys said it was pretty impressive hearing me use different tactics to get the merchant down below half of what he originally said. Thank you, China.

During the next morning I was chilling at the hostel, reading a book on Psychopaths that I picked up on the shelf down the hall when two Chinese girls on a moped stop in front of the gate. They spoke in broken English with the owner, the long-haired dude, but it was obvious they were having troubles. As they walked away from the table I said hello in Chinese and they perked up. I figured out they were having problems and asked if I could possibly help. So they told me what they wanted (warm water for their room, a private shower, and a room for two). All of those requests are pretty typical of Chinese travelers, and I didn’t see why it was so hard for the Little Bird to provide them. I talked with the owner and he told me that they didn’t just want a private shower, they wanted one in their room. Ah, hah. That’s the problem.

I told the girls about how the bathrooms were indeed public, but that only one person was in there at a time, so it was basically private. They seemed a bit nervous about that, so I told them I’d heard good things about the place a block away. They were very happy and exchanged numbers with me, asking if we could meet later. I said sure. About an hour later, after they checked in, I met them and took them to this place I had found a day or two before. We ate and chatted in English and Chinese, but afterward I was itching to go wander around, so I pointed them in the direction of their hostel and took off.

A big attraction in the area of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep temple. Later that day Dean and I grabbed a taxi and it took us to the launching-off point for the temple, a stretch of road with some kiosks and more parked taxis. Because it was just the two of us, no taxi wanted to take us without having us pay an exorbitant amount. At one point a driver calmly sat us down and drew a diagram in the dirt. He drew the bus, the mountain, and then showed us how each taxi takes a certain amount of people at a set price: 800 baht. Gas is expensive, he said. Dean and I told him what we were quoted—70 baht each—and the man laughed, shook his head, and wrote 800 in the dirt. At that point I erased one of the zeroes and said, “there, now it’s 80, let’s go.” He wasn’t amused. He tried to write it again, but we told him that it didn’t matter how many times he did it, we weren’t paying that much.

We ended up waiting about 45 minutes, and just as we were getting ready to forget the whole thing, a Finnish girl shows up wanting to get to the temple. She was a short, mousy girl with boyishly choppy hair. She was quiet, but nice. And just strange. She was followed quickly by another Chinese couple, so now we had five people. We were set. Dean and I got placed in charge of the negotiating because the Chinese couple didn’t have a lot of English and the Finnish girl just didn’t talk. Once a price was agreed upon we hopped in the taxi, a big red thing with a long back area for passengers. They’re called songthaews in Thai.

Along the way I got talking with the couple. Everything was in Chinese, so it made me feel pretty good. They were on holiday from Shanghai, but both had been to Dalian before. One was a teacher and the other an engineer. It felt good to speak in Chinese. In Thailand more people speak English than they do in China, but even with that barrier down I still felt like I couldn’t really talk with any local Thai people.

Once we got to the temple we all agreed on a time to return to the songthaew, and then went our own separate ways. Dean and I wandered around the large temple, looking at the carvings, metal sculptures, and even the view from the top of the mountain. We took our shoes off before going into the center of the temple, and then wandered around. The whole place sparkled as the sun set, the golden yellow surface of everything reflecting and throwing back the sun’s light.

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Notice the brown bag I mentioned...yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.
Notice the brown bag I mentioned…yeah. Needless to say, I gave that away as a gift once I got back to Dalian.

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On the ride back we all chatted about the place and our travel plans. That night Dean and I wanted to catch some Muay Thai fights going on. I snapped a picture of a flyer, and we used it to find the area, but once we got close enough the camera was pointless. A young Thai guy announcing the fights with Eye of the Tiger blaring from behind the walls was pulling people in from off the streets. It would have been impossible to miss.

Once inside we sat at a table about fifteen feet from the ring and ordered two Leo Beers, Thailand’s main beer. First up was a bout between two skinny guys, followed by one with two female fighters. They were awesome. We watched five fights, and that one with the girls was one of the best. They had a lot of energy and their kicks and punches were nothing but brutal. Then came the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. A handful of guys climbed into the ring and each one of them were blindfolded. After the bell rang they all just started swinging. A few times the referee had to fight back as the boxers jabbed him. One fighter liked to jab to find his opponent and then let loose a huge shot that floored a few guys. I didn’t know they did that sort of thing, but it sure was funny as hell.

Then back at the hostel I get another call. My plane is cancelled again, and at this point I will miss the tour of Kunming and have to wander around myself for four days. I mulled it over a few minutes and decided to just stay in Thailand for the rest of the trip. I told the guys I’d been bummin’ around with and they invited me to join them as they went to Pai, a scenic mountain town a few hours away. I said sure, and we made plans to catch the bus at 8 the next morning. That night, however, everyone in the hostel, and a bunch from others, headed down the street where a bunch of bars were stationed. There we all all danced and talked, and hung out for a few hours. Before I knew it the night had burned into the morning and the sun had already risen.

No worries, I’d sleep on the three hour bus ride. By nine am I realized that would never happen. Anyone whose ever taken the bus ride from Chiang Mai to Pai knows what I’m talking about. There are 762 death defying curves on the route from Chiang Mai to Pai, about 50 miles north. Jostled left and right as the driver took each one of them a 60m/h, I had no hope of sleeping. Along the ride, however, Dean, Dave, and I met up once again with the Finnish girl, and even met another English guy named Brendan. Brendan would end up hanging with us for the next two days as we trekked around Pai, sped down the roads on mopeds, and wandered through the woods looking for waterfalls.

Next: Pai, Thailand Part Two


This place had some good space, but it was just too old, and not comfortable. More like an office.
This place had some good space, but it was just too old, and not comfortable. More like an office.

So when the school I was working with closed I had a few months before I needed to move out this past December. The first place I boarded at was at my amazing friend’s Joyce’s. She and another Chinese teacher were sharing a tw0-bedroom and graciously opened their place to me. They made me feel very comfortable, and I really enjoyed hanging out with them a lot there.

But then after two weeks the itch to have my own place was really naggin’ at me. I’ve had a place to call my own for a long time, so rooming up with folks, even as awesome as Joyce and Hill, was not what I ultimately wanted.

I enlisted the help of a friend and together we scoured the area for open places. Eventually we went to an agency to narrow down our choices. They helped, and it all actually felt pretty legit. They answered questions, were flexible, all that fun stuff…

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Cozy, but just too far away from where I wanted to be...
Cozy, but just too far away from where I wanted to be…

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I had a price range, and distance preferences. They kept those all in mind.

After a handful of days we found a place that wasn’t the greatest looking or newest, but it was perfectly positioned. I have a basic square that I exist in while in Kai Fa Qu and this apt was right smack in the middle of it. Perfect. Price was good. The guy seemed pretty helpful and accommodating. I felt OK handing over six month’s rent from the go. Generally renting contracts are between six months or one year here with many landlords requesting at least six month’s rent up front.

And then I spent a few days in the place. It was cold. The entire wall of connected windows was an obstacle the wind had no problems bypassing and saying, “Haha, hope you like pneumonia, sucker!” Only, it was in Chinese.

Being the ultra handyman that I’m not…I used a big roll of tape and taped those windows up. It actually worked.

But then the small water heater quit working. While I was taking a shower. AND REFUSED TO WORK AGAIN.

The landlord was less than helpful with this development. He wanted me to prove that it broke naturally, you know, wear and tear. Considering I’d never even touched the damn thing, I asked him how he proposed I go about “proving” anything. Have someone look at it, he said. Who, I asked. No answer. And then it occurred to me that it didn’t matter. Anyone I’d get he’d just say wasn’t qualified.

I actually stayed here for a month...until the Landlord became a jerk.
I actually stayed here for a month…until the Landlord became a jerk.

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Gotta love a spiral staircase, right? Not when it's in the middle of what should be a living room and leads to a second floor you can't stand straight up on.
Gotta love a spiral staircase, right? Not when it’s in the middle of what should be a living room and leads to a second floor you can’t stand straight up on.

It was at this time my friend revealed to me that the landlord had made a move on her. He called her and said he was in love with her. BAM! Yup. What about your wife, my friend inquired. Oh, my wife? Yeah, buttmunch, your wife. Well, turns out she’s in Japan, so, yeah, alls fair when you’re a creep and stuff. So when my friend just flat out turned him down he insisted they never see each other again. Fine by everybody, trust me.

But then that’s when his Helpful Guy attitude turned to a Resentful Buttnugget Guy attitude.

Back to the heater.

After he refused to simply repair or replace the heater we asked about the price. He jumped around from 1,000RMB to 5,000. His answers varied from having just bought it at a store, just bought it online, and my favorite, having bought it from a friend online (who in no way could produce a receipt of any kind).

So we went to the store. And checked out these heaters. By the way, they are these one foot-by-one foot, two inch thick plastic contraptions that just latch onto your water pipes.  The prices were much lower than the 5K. But we weren’t satisfied. We asked the workers if these particular heaters were adequate for shower heating. Not at all. BAM. Didn’t even provide a proper heater. God, I really wanted to kick this guy with my steel-toed boots at this point.

When we called the agency to see if they could do anything about this they were of no help. We went to their offices and complained. Showing them the contract and highlighting where it lists the landlord’s responsibilities did nothing. They already got paid, and not by us. The landlord gave them a percentage of the rent, so we were not their customers. They couldn’t have cared less. Why even sign a contact if the darn thing was useless, we asked. Shrugs. Basically, just shrugs. My list of people to kick was growing.

When we attempted to reason with this landlord ONE MORE TIME he just refused to pay or be of any more “assistance.” When I asked him if something else broke naturally of wear and tear would I have to pay for it, too. He said probably, yes.

I’m Out. I told him fine, I’m moving today. It was 4 something in the afternoon and I spontaneously decided not to be involved with this moron any longer. But where to go?

Back to Joyce’s. I’d been keeping her abreast of the issues I was having and she didn’t even hesitate to offer her place again. She’s amazing.

We packed all my crap up (which fits in one car load) and drove it back to her apt. And then my friend said something. She wondered if the landlord would try to come over tonight and mess with something and then say it was me who broke it so he could shake us down for more money. I immediately decided to spend the last night camped on the couch just to make sure he didn’t try anything. I stayed in the empty place half hoping he showed up. I’d finally get to introduce him to my Pro Steel-Toed boots.

Alas, he never showed, but the idea wasn’t as absurd as it sounds. Before I moved in, but after the utilities were already checked, I stopped by to find three lights in the place on and no one around. Who knows how long the lights were left like that. That was the first sign and I should have heeded it.

I spent that morning going over what I’d say to him when he came back to give me the money he owed me, and I had some choice Chinese phrases I was excited to try out. Then, shortly before he came, my friend reminded me that he could still cause much more trouble for me than I could for him. We didn’t know if he had good Guanxi with anyone, and he could also get my passport info from the agency. In the end I settled for just eyeing the twit the whole time. Even when he tried to stretch a smile across his smarmy fat face I just eyed ’em. It took him a bit, but when I refused his pen and used my own he finally got it. He looked at me, his smile dropped, and just stared back before ducking his head and not making eye contact with me again. Yes, it was childish, but if felt good to ignore his personal space and force him to walk around me when he had to move through the place.

He gyped me some money, but I knew that was going to happen since I was the one to technically break the contract. Whaterver.

When we left I took a deep breath and just tried to let it go, slime and all.

And this is the place I'm currently in. It's small, but clean and completely new.
And this is the place I’m currently in. It’s small, but clean and completely new.
Landlords bought new everything.
Landlords bought new everything.
Not too bad...
Not too bad…

Back to Joyce’s I went, and that’s where I stayed for more than two weeks. I spent Chunjie, Spring Festival alone while she and Hill went back to their hometowns, but on Feb 28th I moved into my new place. The landlords are a married couple who let me pay for only three months rent, and bought all new stuff. Microwave, fridge, TV, couch, desk, shower–all new. And the heater is great.

It feels good to have a place that’s mine once again, not part of a school package or even a loyal friend’s apartment, but all mine. It’s a small place, but it’s good enough for me. I even sweep the floor everyday.

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The floors are level and the walls stand firm on all sides, but even on the tenth floor of my new apartment building the wind ravages the closed windows and doors enough to give the impression the whole place is about to collapse in on itself or crash to the dusty pavement below.

I’m told it’s the beginning of the Spring Time Sha Chen Bao (Sand storms). These nasty, Frank Herbertish sounding pain in the butts generally originate in the Gobi desert, but as they careen through the north of mainland China they kick up a hell of a lot more than dust. Out side my window about thirty-six different plastic bags gyrate and do the jig in the air, loose articles of fabric prance on the currents of wind, and only God knows how much smog is being spread around the whole city. Beijing is much worse, I know, but lately I’m noticing the air quality is getting a bit dicey. The AQI puts Dalian somewhere in the 150s regularly now. That’s considered Very Unhealthy. Shoot, the scale goes up to about 300 and Beijing was ranked around 700 a few weeks back. Good lord, right?

As I write this sentence the wind is rallying outside once again, but this time its presence is felt inside. A loud, high-pitched whistling just cut through the dark, quiet one-bedroom with enough force that it sounded more like the fire alarm…which come to think of it, this apartment doesn’t have. I should remedy that.

Sha Chen Bao, ladies and gentlemen. And it’s just begun. I’ve been told Dalian sometimes doesn’t get it, and I don’t really remember it from last year, but in any case, it’s here now. Beijing has to deal with it for a few weeks to a month on occasion. We might be luckier up in the DongBei area.Image

This is right out my window. Can’t see any plastic bags, but that’s a bunch of dust right there.