Monday, April 6, 2015

First impressions from Thailand

Welcome to Chiang Mai, Thailand
I believe it was last Tuesday that I boarded my first flight of five in Lubbock to begin in the long, long trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand's second-largest city after Bangkok. The trigger for this trip had been my old buddy Stuart's purchase of a bike shop in CM, and so the plan was hatched to use a two-week off-from-races period to visit a part of the world that so far had eluded me.
Narita – Haneda airport transfer
Ebola or something reigns supreme in Japan—Stu says it's mainly paranoia
Something like 20,000 miles and what must have been about 36 hours of travel later I arrived at the Chiang Mai airport. Really, I wasn't too worn out: My flight from Dallas to Tokyo's Narita had been upgraded, so those 14 hours of flying were actually quite pleasant. From Narita I had to use ground transportation to transfer to Tokyo's Haneda airport (something I will not need to do on the return trip), where I spent about five hours in Japan Airlines' Sakura lounge, marveling at the beauty of mankind's most significant invention since, well, sliced bread: the beer machine. Put a glass on the gadget's platform and it will be titlted to the perfect angle while a dispenser will release the golden liquid and a tube will top it off with a perfect head. Only in Japan....
The beer machine in JAL's Sakura lounge
From Haneda it was a not-so-comfortable economy overnight flight (starting a bit after midnight) to Bangkok. No chance at an upgrade on JAL, so I simply donned the headphones and tried to sleep away the six hours to Bangkok. Another two hours of layover and a final hour-long flight on Thai Air later and I arrivede at CNX—Chiang Mai. The world has really shrunk.
Maybe I should start collecting tailfins....
Stu and his Thai wife, Mong, picked me up from the airport. Our first stop on the way to their apartment was at the equivalent of a Home Depot, at least as vast but with orange-frocked helper bees everywhere. While American super-stores are notorious for not employing enough help, labor is cheap here, and eager faces waited at every aisle intersection. Stu and Mong will be living above the new shop, and there remain many things to be updated and improved, and thus the quick excursion. Welcome to Thailand!
Ricksha driver and Mong Cycles

For the duration of my stay in Chiang Mai, I will live in Stu and Mong's old apartment, a smart little townhome about two miles from the new shop, in a quiet neighborhood but within a stone's throw from the important things in life, such as beer shop, loads of food stalls, and a supermarket. Stu has set me up with a Marin flat-bar 24-speed that is comfortable and nimble enough for long rides. After a bit of a break-in period—not helped along by the fact that the traffic pattern here is British—I have now learned to navigate in this city of 3 million and not get lost anymore, at least not too often.
Beer delivery (Chang) at the neighborhood store
Neighborhood temple with early setting sun, glorified by gobs of pollution
Neighborhood scooter traffic, masked and unmasked
The traffic, at first glance, is insane. But once you get the hang of it, it's much more benign than what I experienced in the DR just about a month ago. Despite what Stu says, red lights are not customarily run. Sure, those signals located at minor intersections or benefiting pedestrians may see a bit of lawlessness, but in general, the Thai traffic participant is patient and well-behaved. In my first five days here, I have heard three or four honks. Really! One just doesn't honk. Nuts! Bicycles, mopeds (gazillions of them), tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, and buses all live peacefully together, respecting each other and using hand signals and turn signals to alert those behind of their intentions. There is a beautiful flow to it all, with everyone trying to get there, but not at the expense of cutting off the others. A bike is just as respected as a car. Last night I found myself separated from my friends, without lights, and had to ride about 2.5 miles home. I never felt threatened or worried. And I didn't get lost, but that's beside the point.
Stu and the Mongster on our ride on Easter Sunday
Talking about bikes: Stu and Mong are very busy with their fledgling business, but on Sunday the three of us went for an early-morning excursion out of town. Once we left the hustle of the big city behind us (unfortunately, not the pollution—at this time of the year it is permanently hazy around here and, according to Stu, most of SE Asia thanks to both traffic as well as people burning trash, vegetation, stuff) we weer in serene countryside that I want to explore more in the days to come. There are temples and palaces and eateries and tourist attractions. Locals and tourists alike come to these places, and many of them on bikes. Their attire is interesting: Most ride in long sleeves and tights, despite the immense heat (well above 90 F); but what really gets me is the masks or often doo-rags pulled all the way over their noses, allowing just the sunglasses to peek through below the helmet. I need to take a pic of that.
Three buddies ....
... a hundred pink flamingos ...
... and a dragon tamer, not slayer
Off the bike, I have been spending my time in both mundane as well quite exciting ways. Stu's bike shop adventure has thrown him into the middle of a situation that requires pretty much all of his attention. He is trying to become the go-to shop here in Chiang Mai, if not the entire north of Thailand. He has fabulous ideas on how to do so (outstanding merchandise, above-average customer service, perfectly tune bikes, a coffee-and-juice bar, etc.), yet the reality is that he has two mechanics who no shit about working on bikes, the China-made bikes he receives are pieces of shit, and the subcontractors who were supposed to have finished his build-out of the shop never came through. in other words: He deals with a daily CF2 (a cubed clusterfuck!). So, once in a while my presence is welcome.
An old quarry, Sunday's ride attraction
The more exciting activities involve going to the market, watching the world go by, checking out temples, and most importantly, enjoying my daily massage. Oh, those massages. Unbelievably, for about $4.75 one can have a one-hour Thai massage; add another $2, and you'll enjoy the all-nekkid oil massage, which I prefer since I don't scream out in pain! Man, after riding the bike this is just unbelievable. I really should see whether I can fit one of those tiny women who can mutilate a man with their hands and elbows inside the duffel bag that I used to import some tools for Stu. A daily massage like this in Lubbock would be worth a few thousand baht, I say.
You're on your own for the math: one US dollar is about 32 baht
To close things down, today I went to a Thai cooking school. Best $30 I have ever spent! All day long we worked at individual wok stations and learned how to make authentic Thai dishes. Before the cooking part, we had gone to the market to learn about spices and herbs and veggies. I chose the dishes that I wanted to learn about based on what I perceived as an overlap with some of the ingredients we can find in Lubbock, and I think I hit it spot on. I can't wait to put my new skills to good use when I return.
Spicy soup with chicken
Pad Thai (eat your heart out, Angela) and red curry with chicken—both à la Jürgen
Of the ten students in the class, I was by far the oldest—but it was so much fun to talk to those globetrotting couples in their 20s who also took this class, during their sabatical from life, from Taiwan, France, or the UK. Good people. Ah, to be young again and have an entire lifetime ahead of me. Instead, I have to kick things into 6th gear and make sure that I continue to live large.
It wasn't Jesus who appeared on Easter Sunday
And to do that, I have decided to leave Chiang Mai on Wednesday for a three-day, two-night bike trip into the hinterlands. I just have this hankering to get out and see more countryside, all that pollution be damned. So, stay tuned for the next report.

Jürgen

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