Butterflies and Bicycles — Lost Days in Chiang Mai


We’re almost at the end of our month in Chiang Mai. It has been eventful in some very fun and some not so fun challenging ways as we work through a retirement plan that includes selling the condo and boat.

We’ve decided to extend our trip until April 2014 and put off India until the fall of 2013; as a result we are staying in Thailand until mid April before heading to Turkey.

Having visited here before we knew that Chiang Mai is a great place for an extended stay. Some of our best days have had us out on our bikes exploring the city particularly the small sois that wind through the old historic town. These are the sois we like to get lost in, as they are full of surprises – temples we didn’t know existed; small markets that return us to the real Thailand, with rank market smells and market dogs sleeping in the street so that we have to cycle around them. Yesterday we returned to the terra cotta garden, one of Ian’s discoveries – a walled in patio-stoned garden full of decaying terra cotta statues and mural tiles, all artfully displayed, leaning up against jungle trees and brick walls, some covered in moss. As I wandered through the garden taking pictures I watched flocks of butterflies flying amongst the statuary. Very pretty.

We have also cycled up to Doi Suthep (Ian twice) a challenging 1300 metre climb over 13 kms where the grade averages more than 10 percent. I still have to walk bits even without panniers. Doi Suthep itself is an amazing temple and very popular with Thais and tourists – the whole area at the base of the temple itself (which sits on top of the mountain and requires a further climb of 300 stairs) has a carnival like feel with tons of trinket and food stalls. I will be doing it a couple of more times as well as some other out-of-town rides to try and stay in shape for the next 5000 or 6000 kms we plan to cycle.

Then there are days of slow breakfasts either in the neighborhood or up in our room, and then a slow walk around the sois that eventually take us out to the moat road and beyond the walls of the old city to a favourite street full of used book stores. We are thankful these exist as I am averaging three books a week and Kobo prices and their non-sharing policy is expensive on the retirement budget! I am buying used books here for 2 or 3 dollars a pop and I am able to trade them in when I’m done. Kobo is averaging more like 12.00 a book and that is with me searching for their bargain reads. However I have also splurged a little on a David Foster Wallace bender buying a biography, his editor-finished novel The Pale King and his big hit Infinite Jest. This has been a period of intense reading and I feel like I’ve completed the equivalent of a university survey course on American university-produced writers since 1985. Perhaps more on that on another blog…

Our first weekend here someone told us that the woman’s prison was being repurposed as a temple and the women moved to better facilities out of town. Curious, we cycled down to see it and were very moved by the place, a tough spot to end up in, and I suspect that, like most people in prisons around the world, economic circumstances and family background has a lot to do with how they end up there. The women had only recently moved and we were sobered by the personal items left behind, magazine cut outs of women in bridal dresses in one cell, and shampoo and shower cap laying outside the communal shower.

We’ve finally found things to do in the evenings here beyond trying every restaurant in our walking radius :-0 We were happy to learn that the North Gate jazz co-op is still operating and we managed to stay up late enough finally to get down there and hear a first set that starts at 9 pm – it was terrific jazz, a Thai band with a French sax player.

We saw our first movie ever in Thailand a couple of weeks ago on a Friday night – at the Cineplex in the large shopping plaza near the airport. I managed to talk Ian out of cycling there (although its only 3 kms) because we have not been in a tuk tuk since we arrived in Thailand (Aisa for that matter) and I needed a tuk tuk hit. (For those who don’t know a tuk tuk is a three-wheeler open cab that is built around a motorcycle.) The theatre was identical to the Cineplexes at home — so much so that when we left (we saw Life of Pi which was fantastic) we were completely disoriented, expecting somehow to walk outside to a rainy Vancouver Friday night near Tinseltown (the theatre complex in Vancouver we typically saw films at) and to jump in Ian’s old car to get home. Instead we jumped into a tuk tuk and ate dinner at a street stall close to our guesthouse. It was a little bittersweet – novel and fun and yet it made me a little homesick for Vancouver. However, two theatre tickets cost us 11.00 Cdn., dinner was 3.00 for the two of us and we sat outside eating in our t-shirts at 9:00 at night watching a very international world go by.

Ian was also able to get a hockey hit at the U.N Irish pub which plays a variety of sports events on big screen TVs; Ian is on their mailing list so he can catch whatever hockey games come up. Our first wasn’t a Canucks game (Leafs versus Rangers) but it was CBC and we made fun of Don Cherry with an expat from Toronto and had a few pints and a good time.

We celebrated Chinese New Year last night with some people from Tennessee one of whom is bigger than life and very charismatic. We had dinner and drinks at a street stall table close to our guesthouse. Dan bought ten flying lanterns and then began calling people who just happened to be walking by our table, to come and light a new years lantern and watch it disappear into the heavens. What started out as dinner and drinks turned into a kind of instant street party and a good time was had by all.

On quieter days and evenings I have been thinking a lot about community and citizenship and globalization…I have moments of guilt re taking advantage of cheap living here in the winters (which is making early retirement possible with six months every year in Canada as well) as I imagine the expats have been driving up the prices for average Thais who, at least minimum wage earners, make the equivalent of 300 dollars a month. On the other hand, the cost of living in Vancouver has skyrocketed over the last 20 years with wages not keeping up to any degree (unless you are a government worker who gets cost of living raises). In my own case, my highest salary was more than 13 years ago now and my salary proceeded from there on a downward trend to the last two companies I worked at fulltime. Those companies also closed shop in Vancouver moving to India in one case and the U.S. in the other. So, perhaps I have also been a victim of globalization and there is some balance with me now taking advantage of it, or so goes the rationalization now.

When I think about what is required for me to manifest and manage this new life I think of a phrase I have adopted from my friend Dana. She talks about ‘living creatively ‘ and I believe that that is exactly what is required of me now. There is the creative challenge of finding and adapting to a cheaper winter lifestyle in other parts of the world. There is the challenge at home in Canada of training myself out of a consumer-oriented mindset to more of a producer-oriented mindset – can I create a home with second-hand furniture in a smaller cheaper town and make it an expression of myself that I am contented with rather than requiring expensive digs and furniture to do the same – can I learn to cook so that the 200 restaurant treat meal is something I can produce myself – can I learn to find expression through drawing and other art rather than solely through the purchase of other peoples expressions (art). Can I find flexible work that I like doing so that I am not completely retired (and get tax breaks as a self-employed individual in retirement). I think the answer is yes to all of the above and the challenges are exciting – more exciting to me than working as a consultant on a full-time basis.

So forward we go, working a retirement plan and enjoying the easy life here in Chiang Mai.

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