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Tourist Survival 101"
For Chiang Mai, Part 2

By X. Pat Farang

Sitting in the café in Chiangmai with our coffee mugs refilled, I reviewed the lessons on how to fully enjoy this wonderful land and people that I had discussed with my friends. This was their first time visiting Thailand and they recognized that it was very different than any place they had been before.
"Remember, the first rule is to 'relax and enjoy' the people, the culture and the country and to not be judgemental based on your experiences in your home country. Notice how the Thais look for the 'sanook' or fun in everything they do".

"The second rule we discussed was that you must respect the Thai culture and traditions at all times. Dress politely, be respectful of the King and Buddhism, avoid confrontation and use good manners at all times".

When I asked if they had any questions so far, Eunice looked around at the people in the restaurant and said "I often notice that the Thais greet each other in special way. Is there some sort of rules in how to do that?"

"Good question. The traditional Thai greeting is called a wai, with the hands pressed together in front of them. However, most tourists don't understand that the use of the wai is not as simple as a handshake. There are very specific rules of behavior as to who may wai whom first based upon the perceived relative status of the individuals. For instance, a Thai would ordinarily not wai to a younger person or to someone of a lesser status such as a restaurant worker or a hotel employee unless they were an acquaintance. Generally a tourist is ok to return a wai but usually you should avoid initiating a wai".

"Another thing you need to realize is that to point your foot at someone is somewhat similar to a certain rude gesture with a middle finger where you come from. Always avoid pointing your foot at anyone. Similarly, the head is considered the most holy part of the body and it is considered quite rude to touch the head of another, even in a friendly manner with a pat".

I smiled at them and said, "Now it is time for us to move on to some more practical lessons. Ready?"
Sitting back with their coffees they waited for me to continue. "Rule Number Four is very important. Learn to walk defensively in Chiangmai. Walking in this city will be whole new adventure for you. Pedestrians not only do not have the right of way, they can be assumed to have no rights at all!"
"One of the problems that you will have as you walk around this fascinating city is that you will be constantly rubbernecking to try and take it all in since there is so much to see. However, this means that you might not notice the ground in front of you and will possibly pay a high price by stumbling on uneven sidewalks, protruding pipes, drainage holes with broken covers, wires, piles of merchandise, parked motorcycles and cars and everything else that you will find put in your path. And you cannot just look down since you must also watch out for low overhead signs and wires. A holiday can be ruined by a twisted ankle or a banged forehead so please be careful".

"Or worse! A friend and I were walking down a city soi or lane, talking away, paying no attention to where we were going, and he stepped right into a fresh elephant dropping. Now elephants are not common in the city but you will see the occasional one in town looking for tourists. As you would expect, everything about the elephant is large. Fortunately, nearby there was a Thai watering the plants in front of his shop. Despite the fact he was laughing as hard as I was, he did use the hose to wash most of it from my friend's shoes. Those shoes were never going to be the same again!"
"You will even have to learn how to cross the street".

My friend, Bill, looked at me with puzzlement and said "Say friend, are you not treating us as just a little too naive and unknowing? We do know how to cross a street just walk to a corner with a set of traffic lights". I looked at them sadly and just shook my head. "That is how a lot of visitors here end up either terrified or hurt or both. Traffic lights here are few and far between and corners are sometimes the most dangerous place to cross".

"Look, you will not understand the sequence of the lights. You will not understand what direction the vehicles, including motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, tuk tuks, etc., are coming from, especially the ones going the wrong way! At times it appears that there are no 'Traffic Laws' in this country, only 'Traffic Suggestions'. You are generally safer to cross in the middle of the block where you can more easily anticipate what the vehicles are doing but please be extra alert for the motorcycles that may be behind the cars". "Let me tell you about my first time crossing Tha Phae Road at a very busy time, which happens to describe most any hour of the day or night".

"As I stood there and tried to absorb the scene, I saw cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, tuk tuks, and song taos all racing by in an endless stream. There was even the odd motorcycle trying to go the wrong way on that one-way street, although in fairness, most of them stayed off the road and drove on the sidewalk. Not only that, vehicles were frequently five abreast on a two-lane road. As I waited for some sort of break I began to understand why the Thai people have developed such a great sense of patience".

"After waiting for what seemed like ten minutes, I suddenly felt someone take my arm and looked down to see this lovely older Thai woman looking up at me. She started to pull me out into the chaos. With a fearlessness developed from many years of experience she weaved me in and out of the traffic until the safety of the other side was reached. I looked at her with my obvious relief and thanked her and then she smiled that beautiful Thai smile and headed back into the traffic to get back to the other side to continue her journey. Her only reason to cross the busy street was to help some forlorn farang reach the other side".

"Traffic is very different here in Thailand. The Thais believe that when you say 'One Way' on a street that it only applies to people going in that direction. If you go the other way, as many do, then you should simply try to avoid the oncoming traffic. Besides, at best those rules only apply to cars, not to motorbikes".

As Bill and Eunice looked out at the traffic going by I knew that they were starting to understand the points I was trying to make. Maybe I would give them a little time to absorb these first rules before talking to them about other topics such as eating, bathrooms and the wildlife they may see in the city.

See related articles (How to Survive as a Tourist in Chiang Mai):

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