I was sitting in a small garden coffee shop just behind my school sipping a cooling iced-coffee yesterday afternoon, when I started to think about the area surrounding me. Its history is the history of foreigners in Chiang Mai, as this area is where the first foreigners settled, lived and worked in the late nineteenth century.
Many of the old wooden buildings, places of worship and homes these foreigners built are still standing. There are so many of them tucked away down hidden paths or behind crumbling brick walls that a few years ago UNESCO even considered making this area a world heritage site. Nowadays, the area's history is complemented by an eclectic mix of restaurants, schools, designer shops and charitable organizations making it an exceedingly interesting area to work.
The Wat Ket area I am familiar with stretches from the east side of the Ping River between the Nakorn Ping and Nawarat Bridges east to Bumrungrad Road and is bordered to the north by Kaewnawarat Road and to the south by Charoenmuang Road. It's a fair-sized chunk of real estate that in the not too distant past was mostly owned by a member of the Scottish aristocracy; but more of that later. Its post code, 50000 , actually encompasses a slightly larger area.
I think to really get a feel for this area I should take you on a walking tour of the area. After exiting my school and turning right, we turn right again into soi 3 Kaewnawarat Road. This is a quiet little road containing some mighty fine eating. There's the superb home-cooked style American menu of Bake & Bite. Close by is Ton Wah (jambolan tree in Thai), or the 3 sisters as it's known to many regular diners. This place serves delicious cheap Thai dishes to order in the garden of the 3 sisters' home.
Baan Thai Rom Yen (cool shade Thai house in Thai) opposite offers a kanom jin (rice noodles with soup) buffet experience; and a little further along this soi is the atmospheric Huen Khachao (my house in Northern Thai). This restaurant is only a few years old but wonderfully recreates a typical wooden mom & pop village store/restaurant/pub/cinema from the time before the opening of TESCO and Big C forced many of these types of places to close. The food is northern and delicious. It's also very affordable.
Turning left out of Huen Khachao and then turning left again at the end of this soi, we come across the Chinese Attaqwa Mosque. Built in the late 1960s by descendents of Muslim Jin Haw (galloping Chinese) traders from Yunnan in China who used mule trains to haul and trade goods such as tobacco and opium from market to market across the mountains of Burma, Laos and Northern Thailand. They were the transport company that drug warlords such as Burmese Khun Sa contracted to bring black gold out of the Shan mountains.
During the 1960s, 70s and 80s much of the opium grown in Burma came through Chiang Mai on its way to the heroin addicts of Europe and North America. I'm sure therefore, it's just a coincidence that along this same quiet road is an especially large house occupied by the very old Chinese widow of one Khun Sa's senior lieutenants. .. allegedly.
Taking the first right turn past the mosque is a row of shops. One of them is occupied by my regular barber. If he's not in his shop, I need to pop my head into one of the other shops or the mosque to find him. He calls me ajarn and is always apologetic that he wasn't in his shop waiting for me. To trim the fluff from my neck he uses a cut-throat razor. I make a point of never visiting on days when Britain and the USA invade another oil-rich Muslim country in their jihad to fight international terrorism, just in case he coughs or slips and the cut throat razor lives up to its name.
Heading on past the shops for a further 50m we turn left at the t-junction. There's an interesting little building named the Saiyuri Complex just on the right hand side of this short road. In English the sign reads coffee shop and snooker but in Thai it reads ap op nuat (wash, dry and then massage). It's quite a busy little place. I've never visited as I've heard the coffee is terrible and I don't like snooker.
Walking briskly forward with eyes straight ahead we promptly hit Bumrungrad Road. The British Council is located along this road. The British Council was my employer from 2000 to 2002, and I've also been an IELTS examiner for them since 2004. The British Council compound is comprised of the teaching centre and the consulate and was moved to this location from where the Chedi Hotel is now located on the river Ping during Margaret Thatcher's maniacal cost cutting of all government budgets during the 1980s.
The teaching centre is built in and around an old wooden bank building which is said to be haunted by a former Thai member of staff who was killed in an accident riding his motorbike to work one morning. It's said - by Thais - that his spirit doesn't realize it is dead so continues to clock-in and walk around the building occasionally. Of course, stamping feet while climbing the wooden stairs to the Thai staff's office in the morning was a regular pastime of a few of the more mischievous and immature foreign teachers working there.
I remember one day during my teaching days at the Council that the centre director and honorary British Consul, David, made the decision to cut down one of the two tall and leaning coconut trees growing in the front garden. As many receptions were held in the garden rather than hotels to save money, the threat of falling coconuts was deemed serious enough to warrant capital punishment. "Coconut skulls Chiang Mai Governor" would have been a Sun newspaper headline too humiliating for the British nation to bear, so it was decided that the left leaning one had to go. David spoke to the centre's elderly Thai accountant and asked whether she knew of a cheap tree surgeon. She did. He would not only cut down the tree, he would also remove the wood from the compound; and he wouldn't charge a single baht. This made David very happy.
So, a few days later we were all watching from the safety of the first floor air-conditioned teachers' staff room when a tiny little Thai man who looked at least 100 years old rode into the compound on his battered old Honda Dream with side car. Due to his frailty he took ages to remove his tools and place them on the lawn between the two trees. He then did something quite extraordinary: he picked up his axe and flew at the right leaning tree with the force and accuracy of Conan the Barbarian.
David reacted swiftly and ran out of the building, but he wasn't quick enough to stop Conan cutting down the wrong tree. The tree was lying dead on the lawn as David reached Conan. Conan had by now morphed back into a frail old man and started to wai and apologize profusely. The old man was now struggling to lift his axe but valiantly persevered anyway and eventually cut down the correct tree. After he had removed the last of the timber and rode off into the sunset, I heard David tell our elderly accountant that at least the British taxpayer wouldn't have to pay that bloody fool anything. Our elderly accountant started to giggle after David had left the office. I asked what was so funny. She said with a glint in her eye and a smile on her face that coconut wood is very expensive.
Security at the British Council compound was a little relaxed to say the least. There was Somchai, the Thai security guard, and his ever faithful fighting cock who accompanied him everywhere; and that was about it. As soon as Somchai arrived for work around mid-morning, he would head straight to the caretaker's antique wooden house in the far corner of the compound. The old lady who lived there was also the school's cleaner.
As Somchai slowly rocked in the hammock hanging in front of her house, the old lady would serve him breakfast and fuss over his cock while he relaxed. For most of the day Somchai kept a low-key security presence which coincidentally was in tune with the UK's world-wide influence at that time. However, his days of leisure were numbered once Tony Blair made his unilateral decision to fight global terrorism by invading countries that had nothing to do with it.
The Chiang Mai Muslim community were outraged when the UK and the USA invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, and protests were quickly planned for the front of the US and UK consulates. The protest was completely ignored when a large group of agitated Muslims and their placards arrived at the 3 meter security walls that completely surround the US compound. Their request to deliver a letter to the US consul also failed as armed security guards pointed out that they hadn't booked an appointment through the consulate's website at least 3 months in advance.
As the armed guards encouraged them to move on, the hoard turned and headed for the British Council. We were expecting them, and so were most of the Thai press. Anticipating blood and gore there were TV news cameras and photographers crowding around outside the fragile 1.5 meter railings built more for decoration than defence at the front of our compound. Again, we watched from the safety of the first floor teachers' room as David valiantly strode forward to receive the protest letter; and in true British stiff upper lip fashion, he carried with him an umbrella for protection.
Jocularity aside, it must have been an extremely intimidating situation that met him at the gate. However, he politely received the letter, shook some hands, posed for the press and returned to the safety of the staff room. At this point it seemed that the hoard was about to riot as arms started flailing and a number of bullhorns relayed angry messages to the protestors. As I was looking for someone to pull in front of me in anticipation of the sacking of the Council, the tension was defused by our Thai examinations officer, Khun Rawi. He had been translating into English the messages from the hoard and was now telling us that they were only arguing over where to eat lunch.
A close reader of the description of the previous serious security breach at the British Council has probably noticed that there is no mention of Somchai. Unfortunately there can be no mention, as he slept through the whole incident in his hammock in front of the cleaner's house. I guess as a direct result of this serious and potentially dangerous failure, security was consequently and significantly upgraded. There is now an extra security guard at the gate whose job is to lever up and down the metal bar that was installed in order to stop bicycles; because it certainly isn't capable of stopping cars.
To be continued next month.
John Quinn is the course trainer at SEE TEFL in Chiang Mai