” I love your toenails!”
Walking in the only sizeable park in Chiang Mai which just happens to be near where I am staying, I heard a soft voice say, “I love your toenails!” It was dark, around six o’clock, so when I turned around to hear where the voice came from, there was a small woman with long, gray hair and glasses. She didn’t fit the image of most Thai women in their 50’s or 60’s, but I figured that strange remark must have come from her when there was no one else around. Why would she say that I wondered? After a moment’s hesitation, I realized she was looking at and pointing to my newly painted toenails which I had recently painted as an accompaniment to my summer sandals.
Recovering from her unexpected compliment, I felt she wanted to continue the conversation so I immediately got one started by asking her some questions. We continued to walk together for about ten minutes covering such subjects as her family, what she did for a living, children and husband…typical things one talks about with those who are native to the country you are visiting. Somehow in that short space of time, we landed on what was going on in our world today. This really got her talking… much of which I had difficulty understanding. We had entered into the realm of philosophy which can be a difficult topic to address when speaking to someone with an entirely different language. It’s something I’ve never been able to do with any Thai person in all the times I have visited this country.
Upon reflection of this meeting in the park, I have noticed that the Thai people seem to be opening up more now to all the tourists that are returning after the COVID shut down. Since my arrival, I am definitely seeing that more young people are making an effort to talk to English speaking visitors, something they have not been readily known to do in the past. I have always found them to be more reserved than the Vietnamese or Cambodians, for example. In fact, it’s not just me who feels that this is changing. The other day I was talking to a chap from the UK who noticed the same thing. He agreed that he has experienced the same thing: Thai people can be difficult to really get to know despite their smiles.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city with well over one million people but for a city of this size it doesn’t have much in the way of green areas or parks to escape from the hubbub of the city for a quiet walk with nature. It’s most notable feature is the moat that encircles the inner part of the city and the remains of a wall built in the 12th and 13th centuries to protect the city from invaders. It’s always refreshing to walk along the moat to be greeted to the various plants and trees native to this part of Thailand. Outside the moat there seems to be another scarcity of parklands for a city of this size which stretches out well beyond the inner city. For this reason, I am grateful for having found a place to stay near the southwestern entrance of the moat which can boast of having the only park available in the inner city…the Buak Haad City Park…. where I met my toenail admirer. Because of the close relationship that has developed over the years between Japan and Thailand, the then Prime Minister of Japan in 1981 decided to donate a large sum of money to the governor of Chiang Mai to improve the park with a special condor tree and other greenery native to southern Asia, as well as ponds, fountains, and quaint little bridges, thus making it a beautiful public park for all ages. For families there are lawns to sit on for picnics, for the children a great play area with sand and slides, for the sports minded there is a court for a Thai game which is a mix of soccer and volleyball, and for exercise buffs, there are various machines for working out. At 5 o’clock every morning you may see Chinese seniors there practicing Tai Chi.
I should also mention that just outside the moat and not far from Buak Haad is another much smaller park which most tourists and the Thai don’t even know about. After thirteen visits to this city, I just found out about it on this trip. It’s a mere fifteen minutes by foot for me to enjoy a walk any time of the day in almost complete silence despite the busy streets above it. Called Kanjanapisak Park, it was recently discovered by an interested group of archeologists and historians that this was the site for an outer wall and fortress built to protect the inner city already surrounded with in inner wall and a moat. Seems that the Thai were not going to take any chances of being invaded by any of the countries around them such Burma and China. Pieces of pottery and stone reveal that this outer wall was erected in the 16th and 17th centuries to provide not only added protection for those living behind the inner wall but also a fairly densely populated area outside.
Unfortunately for the whole of Chiang Mai and the problems with smog that have plagued the city for years, for whatever reasons their bus system is now a thing of the past. With only taxis, namely Grab and something called In Drive, along with the songtaos and tuk- tuks, I have been using my feet to get around. Yes, there have been many changes some for the good and others not so good. Many of the old familiar restaurants and guest houses have either disappeared or taken on a new look with new menus or owners in some cases. Prices have risen but not unreasonably so, for which I am thankful. The Thai are not taking advantage of us foreigners even though there is evidence that they are under as much pressure as we are with COVID restrictions, loss of jobs, and the rising cost of just about everything. I sense they are trying their best to give us good service. Even the songtao and tuk- tuk drivers are keeping their rates reasonable by being more willing to bargain. They aren’t putting pressure on me to use their service if I say ‘no’ with a smile. I have been to the Sunday Walking Market and was pleased to see that the price of their crafts and other merchandise is either holding steady or with slight increases. Food prices are definitely going up, but if you look carefully you can find restaurants selling their famous dishes such as pad tai at a very reasonable price of $2.50 a plate. Good prices for a coffee can be found anywhere from 30 baht (about $1.20 Cdn) from a small off- the- main- drag kiosk to up to $3.00 or more at an upscale bakery and coffee cafe. Starbuck’s is the most expensive at $4.50 so I won’t be buying my coffee from them any time soon. Since my new digs has a fridge, I paid a visit to one of Chiang Mai’s famous superstores, Rimpings, to buy some breakfast staples, such as butter, cheese, yogurt, muesli, crackers, and bread. I forgot to bring a tea ball from home for my loose tea, so I added that to my tab which came to approximately $25 in total. Fruit and veggies I can get at the many vendors around or at the local markets for a lesser price.
If any of you reading this happen to be one of my customers for the Harem pants and other clothing, the good news is that the prices are all about the same. I am hoping to pack up some of my merchandise into a very strong bag which will withstand the normal beating that our baggage can take on an overseas flight. This will definitely help me to keep my costs down as I won’t have horrendous shipping charges or duty to pay. Pants in black and white elephant patterns seem to be all the rage this year with tourists of both sexes. I am seeing more Thai women wearing them but not the Thai men.
One of the most difficult challenges I’ve had to face here was the rejection of my Credit Union debit card. None of the ATM’s would accept it. This came as a shock since I never had a problem in the past with this card. However, my lesson learned from the stress of not being able to access my money is that these days a traveler must not assume anything. Everything is changing as I should have guessed. The banks are only recognizing the more acceptable cards from the big banks and credit cards, such as VISA and Mastercard. To make a large withdrawal, I had to find a bank that would do a VISA transaction for me so long as I had a passport to show and was able to find an employee who spoke enough English to understand my plight.
Nevertheless, Thailand is really letting out all the stops to attract tourists which are a huge part of their economy. They now offer a 45 day visa for free as opposed to the 30 day visa of the past. Wearing masks isn’t mandatory anymore but you still won’t find many Thai without one. It’s mostly us tourists who are going about maskless. However, I don’t sense any bad feelings towards us for as far as they are concerned, it’s our choice.
On one of my previous visits to Chiang Mai, I wrote about the interest that the Thai take in celebrating how we westerners spend our Christmas. It’s got nothing to do with religion or why we celebrate it, but all to do with shopping, music, and just the fun of giving gifts, dressing up as Santa, decorated trees, elves, and reindeer. Because most Thai people love to celebrate something that entails food and family gatherings, they have discovered that our Christmas provides all of that and more. The irony of this is that while they are having fun shopping, we are thankful to be able to escape it. About the only thing I could miss is hearing some of our Christmas choral music. However, the Thai have even thought of that for us tourists and the many ex-pats who live here. The other day when I was visiting the new Central Festival shopping centre far out in the burbs, I heard this beautiful music despite the noise of the hoards of people who were there. Following the sound, I discovered a small band of girls and boys with a director playing this beautiful music. I have to admit it lifted my spirits immensely since I was only out there to find a bank and an internet company that was recommended to me for help in solving my cash and phone problems.
To sum up my impressions made from the time I arrived almost three weeks ago, I have to say that it’s been a pleasure to be back here again despite the various problems that invariably surfaced before, during, and even after my arrival here. Without a doubt for me, it’s about the people I’ve met up with both Thai and friends from other countries who have been so kind and willing to help out when I needed it. I am always amazed at how good the memory of the Thai people is especially when they are able to recognize you after a two year absence. Their gift to me has been to give me a distraction from all the politics and problems of home. I admire how they genuinely seem to be handling the after effects of COVID with a resilience and some hope. They appear to be so much better at being able to live in the present rather than worry about what has happened in the past or will happen in the future. We can take a lesson on this topic, I am sure.