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First Impressions of Chiang Mai

Do you remember thefirst time you took a ride in a tuk tuk, paid a visit to a Thaitoilet, went to the market or tailor's or were introduced to theculinary delight of the ice-cream sandwich? (Who would ever havethought of putting a layer of ice-cream between two slices of breadfor a snack?) Well, allow me to share with you some recollectionsand amusing stories of my first impressions and experiences ofChiang Mai. It's okay; I can laugh about them now.

I found that getting anywhere by foot was a perilous business inChiang Mai, because Thai people don't really go in for pavements,and when they do, they aren't really intended for walking on,rather for putting things on. Any spare bit of pavement lyingaround is just asking to have a stall of some variety set up on it.You need your wits about you whilst stepping over piles of sleepingdogs, ducking the smoke fumes from sizzling meat stalls and tryingto persuade the taxi drivers that "tuk tuk" is notthe answer to everything. Pavements are more of an obstacle coursethan a means of getting from A to B and on the market streets it'svery easy to become trapped in a queue for something you don'twant.

But the real funbegins when you need to cross the street. Unless you are luckyenough to tag onto the end of a troop of monks, the only way toguarantee your safe arrival on the other side is to find a zebracrossing and march resolutely across, unvarying your pace as themotorcycles weave in and out of you and the cars accelerate towardsyou.

The back streets are often a healthier option, with the lushbanana and teak trees suppressing both noise and fumes alike.Instead of the traffic, now it's just a couple of kids playingbadminton in the middle of the road that you have to contend with.The prospect of being clattered on the head by a shuttlecock is farless daunting than that of being bulldozed by a speeding tuk tuk,mauled by a pack of hungry dogs or finding oneself at the front ofa queue for bamboo worms.

I decided that perhaps, getting about my motorbike would be abetter option, however, I hadn't reckoned on having to chicane myway through a group of strategically positioned sleeping dogs. Norwas I warned about the crazy drivers who wait until you are aboutto turn, before attempting to undertake. On my first attempt, myThai co-worker, the housekeeper, the gardener, assorted passersby,the neighbours, the neighbours' children, guests, cats, dogs andchickens all came out to enjoy the spectacle as I uncouthly stalledmy way down the driveway accompanied by hoots and roars oflaughter.

If you fancy a bitof an adrenaline rush, it's good idea to board a tuk tuk for ahair-raising rollarcoaster ride. Haggling for the price of a taxiride was a new experience for me and ducking my head as I got inand out was a bit of a challenge. If the driver is unfamiliar withyour destination then this could present a problem, but once youget a map out then your know you're done for. Map reading is aforeign concept to tuk tuk drivers. On one occasion, after peeringat the map for several minutes, the driver asked, "is thisChiang Mai?" I clung on for dear life as we hurtled by ina blur, weaving wildly in and out of the traffic, leaving a trailof stinking exhaust in our wake.

My first clothes shopping experience was a bit of an ordeal.Having always been considered slim, I did not expect to havetrouble finding clothes to fit me or having to purchase items in anextra large. Nor was buying shoes made any easier by my apparentlyhobbit-sized feet. Not to worry though, you can always get clothesspecially designed and made for you at one of the many tailorshops, I thought. However, when a friend of mine went to collecther dress from the tailor's, there was a big surprise in store forher. Evidently there had been a slight communication problem as thedressmaker had thought fitting to add contrasting spring greencuffs to a bright purple floral dress. I guess there's noaccounting for taste.

The concept of planning or warning you in advance is not afamiliar one to residents of Chiang Mai. Forexample, building work once began abruptly directlyoutside my office window without so much as a word. It was amusingto see the washing line in use one day when nobody in the house haddone any laundry. I guess it's all part of the friendly chilled outatmosphere. When a strange man let himself into the house oneevening when I was alone and started going through my underweardraw with a flashlight, I was a little perturbed at first but tookit all in my stride. It turned out he was just the Rentokil bloke,looking for vermin.

My first visit to aThai toilet was also a bit of an eye opener. The most immediatequestion being "which way round are you meant to standon this thing?" Thankfully, I found that I was notalone in this puzzling dilemma. I had certainly never had to flusha toilet with a bucket of water before either. The next problem ishow to dispose of the toilet paper when you can't flush it down thelavatory and there isn't a bin provided and what is the showerthing attached to the wall supposed to be for?

However I choose to travel or whatever I choose to do, I havecome to accept that being pointed, stared and laughed at is justall part of the everyday experience of being a farang in ChiangMai. At least I can seek solace in the fact that I am a constantsource of entertainment to others without even having to try. It'sall just a matter of adapting and learning to say "mai penrai" in the face of adversity. One thing's for certain:without all these unique eccentricities life here would not benearly so vibrant or so carefree.


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