The Rose of the North
A short break in Thailand's second city
Getting around Chiang Mai
Is there a city or town in Thailand that's more expensive to get around than Chiang Mai? Even though my wife and I are fairly seasoned travellers, we found ourselves spending a small fortune on songtaews and tuk-tuks - often for distances that would barely cost fifty baht in a Bangkok taxi. I can certainly see why the first thing most long-stay ex-pats do is buy themselves a 'motorsai'. There's no way you could live in Chiang Mai for any great length of time and be reliant on hired transportation. The whole system is a tad confusing and very often irritating. There are two-seater tuk-tuks and the larger red 'songtaews', with their two rows of bench seats, on literally every street corner and parked in front of every hotel and guest house, but most of those are only interested in tourists wanting to do a 100 baht or 200 baht run out to a local tourist attraction such as Doi Suthep or the Chiang Mai Night Safari. If you're looking to get from the central area around the Thae Phrae gate to say the train station or CM University - a journey worth 30 baht at the most - then you have to flag down a red songtaew and hope the driver is going in that direction or willing to go that way for a reasonable fee. This will then be on the understanding that the driver can pick up other passengers on the way. The whole journey has to be discussed and negotiated with the driver beforehand - and very often in pouring rain or searing heat.
Chiang Mai is officially one of Asia's most comfortable cities to live in with its relatively clean air, an abundance of good restaurants and helpful friendly locals, but the way you are pestered by vehicle owners from the moment you land at the airport is not one of its more attractive features. Even a gentle stroll down one of Chiang Mai's main roads becomes an endurance test as you find yourself saying 'no thanks' to the tenth taxi driver in as many minutes. I'm all in favor of people touting for business but just because I stand on a street corner to take in a view or collect my thoughts, doesn't mean I'm in the market for a tour around a Burmese temple and a quick gawp at some remote hill-tribe village.
I'm no economist but there are simply far too many drivers chasing too small a market. And all of them are looking to make their one big daily catch. Even at Chiang Mai bus station, there was a huge sign, clearly visible and clearly stating that a taxi into the center of town was 60 baht (and steep even at that price) However, it still didn't stop one opportunist accosting us as we got down from the bus to offer his services for 80 baht. When we drew his attention to the sign, he came down to 70 but we walked on, wandered a little away from the bus station and got a songthaew for 40. This high-pressure negotiation for transport is of course part and parcel of life in Asia but it doesn't make it any less wearisome the older you get - regardless of how long you've lived here.
Chiang Mai's attractions
I undoubtedly fall into the 'demanding' category as far as Chiang Mai's attractions go. I've been up and down those steps to the temple at the top of Doi Suthep more times than the head monk, and the hill-tribe experience has left me a little cold ever since I saw a hill-tribe hut boasting its very own satellite dish. I sat down in front of the hotel tour operator on the first morning and she knew within a matter of minutes that she'd got her work cut out. She went through a great long list of options and much to her annoyance, I interjected with the occasional 'been there', 'no thanks' and 'done that'. We eventually settled for Chiang Mai Zoo on one side of town and the Chiang Mai Night Safari on the other. I suspected this might amount to 'caged animal overkill' but when it comes down to a choice between waterfalls that are probably no more than ambitious streams, opium smokers with long necks, and oh no, not another temple please! - I'm sorry but the animals win hands down.
I last went to Chiang Mai Zoo about six years ago and commented then on how it obviously needed a serious cash injection. Sadly no one seems to have dug deep into their pockets and on a low season, rainy afternoon in September, the zoo painted a pretty depressing picture. Refreshment stalls were closed and shuttered. Cages stood empty and forlorn. And most of the star attractions looked as though they'd long given up. I swore that the ostriches and giraffes (caged together to probably save on labor costs) were nuzzling each other to hide the fact they were having some sort of secret meeting, and top of the agenda was how to get the hell out of there. For a tourist it was soul-destroying; for an animal lover it was heart-breaking. However, the zoo does have two fine pandas, and when you've got pandas on your list of exhibits then there's always hope.
As you'd expect, the pandas enjoy five-star treatment in their own five-star enclosure. There's a whole army of Thai staff engaged in the welfare of these magnificent animals. There's someone employed to make sure the humidity is kept at exactly the right level. There's a woman who specializes in covering your camera flash with black sticky tape (pandas love bamboo but hate flash photography) and there are three people who look after the panda gift shop. It's a pity they don't tell you at the entrance kiosk you have to pay a further 100 baht (on top of the 100 baht zoo entrance fee) to enter the panda enclosure but every one seemed to accept it. A closed circuit TV positioned outside keeps visitors informed on what state of activity the pandas are currently engaged in - be it sleeping peacefully in their den, gnawing on sticks of bamboo, or running around playing a little baseball. I didn't care much because I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to get up close and personal with one of nature's rarest bears. And I'm so glad I did. I got about as close as its humanly possible to get to a panda. Any closer and I could have tickled its stomach and Chuang-Chuang could have put a furry arm around me. I stood there mesmerized for a good thirty minutes. When you're a guest of the animal kingdom, this is about as good as it gets.
The Chiang Mai Night Safari is a relative newcomer to the list of CM must-sees and in stark contrast to the zoo, it's obviously had oodles of funding thrown at it. It's twice the admission price of the zoo but you get very well-trained staff, spotlessly clean toilets, attractive eating areas, a lake with its own magic fountain, and an extensive, if unexciting array of healthy-looking animals. Like other night safaris around the world, the main idea is you clamber aboard an open train with small groups of excited people and do a four-kilometer circuit of dark jungle terrain. Every so often the train makes a stop and the driver shines the brightest flashlight imaginable into the eyes of some unsuspecting meerkat. There's a polite chorus of 'oooohs' and 'aaaaahs' and the train shuttles on to the next animal enclosure - this time inhabited by animals that look like a meerkat but aren't one.
Unfortunately, the whole experience was ruined by a group of Chinese tourists two rows behind us. A famous French existentialist once said 'hell is other people'. I get the impression he'd probably been to the Chiang Mai Night Safari. They really were the most obnoxious bunch of people. The women were loud; the men were louder. We stopped in front of the lion enclosure and it became a contest to see which of the Chinese could roar the loudest. Yes, they were that irritating. I would have given anything - and I mean anything - for one of the big cats to scale the perimeter fence and indulge in a Chinese take-away - provided he left me alone of course.
Thai massage and the lost opportunity
You've got to have a massage if you're in Chiang Mai. There are massage shops everywhere, ranging from the 120 baht an hour 'mattress on the floor' type to the up-market teak wooden house complete with gurgling fountains, aromatic candles and staff who look as though they have some idea what they're doing. The wife and I tried both kinds of establishment while we were there, and like anything else in life; you get what you pay for. I do like a traditional Thai massage now and again provided that the pampering is gentle rather than rough, and the massage is administered by a female under forty. There's nothing sexual or thrill-seeking in it, but I don't want to be pummeled and manipulated by a woman who looks like an extra from Prisoner Cell Block H. Or indeed by a Thai man. I don't care how many Wat Pho certificates he's got under his belt or how many years he's been blind. I don't want the back of a Thai man's hand brushing against me comics - accidental or otherwise.
So the wife and I have stumbled on a massage shop imaginatively called 'Modern Massage' somewhere near the Tha Prae gate. At 150 baht an hour for a traditional massage it fell into the category of cheap and cheerful. Well it was certainly cheap. We walked in and spoke to the girl sitting in the window. This is how the conversation went (in Thai);
My wife: "We'd like a massage please. I want a one-hour foot massage and he (pointing at yours truly) wants a one-hour traditional Thai massage"
Girl 1: "OK. You want a one-hour foot massage and he wants a one-hour traditional Thai massage"
My wife: "Yes that's correct"
(at this point a second girl enters the reception area)
Girl 1 to Girl 2: "This lady wants a one-hour foot massage and he wants a one-hour traditional Thai massage"
Girl 2: "OK. You want a one-hour foot massage and he wants a one-hour traditional Thai massage"
At this point a third girl entered the picture. I'll let you guess what Girl 2 said to Girl 3 and then Girl 3's response. By now I was seriously close to killing someone.
There then ensued the most bizarre conversation between the three girls as they discussed which one of them knew how to administer a foot massage. As it turned out only one of them did. As for my traditional Thai massage, none of them seemed very keen on the idea of laying their hands on me. I put it down to lack of training but you can make up your own story. As they stood there arguing the toss I so wanted to butt in and tell them that this was the kind of conversation you have out of the customer's earshot but the truth was I was enjoying the lesson on how to best ruin a business in just ten minutes flat.
This is a problem I have with so many, so-called Thai business people. They have no interest whatsoever in being successful and who knows, perhaps making a little money along the way. They're interested in doing enough to just survive. The two concepts are entirely different. You see evidence of the 'let's just survive' mentality all over Chiang Mai. The woman in the bookshop who tells you she hasn't got such and such a book but makes no attempt to recommend anything else. The girl in the restaurant who doesn't bother to point out that having the special with coffee and fruit included will cost you just 30 baht more. The tour operator who would rather tell you where you can't go due to the risk of floods and not where you could go. The list is endless. It's not a language thing because if there's anything that I admire about the Chiang Mai people, at least those in constant contact with tourists, it's their ability to speak English well.
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