Asia/SE Asia

Recovering by the Beach — Enjoying Hua Hin


We finally left Chiang Mai last week, opting for a day train to Ayutthaya with a plan to start cycling south from there.

Well, best laid plans and all that…after much running around on our final day in Chiang Mai (mailing parcels home and getting a final dental check up on my new crown and packing after being settled for two months) and yes, I have to admit a wee too much beer the night before that, I came down with a nasty flu. I realized I was in trouble about hour 10 of the 16 hours we spent on the non-air-conditioned train between Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya. I had thought perhaps it was just the heat (somewhere between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius) and smoke particles in the air (farmers are burning fields now getting ready for next crop) that were causing a tickle in my throat up until my nose went into overdrive and I realized I had a fever. Arriving in Ayutthaya at midnight and then having to unload the bikes from the train and ride to a hotel probably didn’t help my situation.

We left our guesthouse in Chiang Mai at 5:15 to catch our 5:45 train. This meant cycling in the dark but I didn’t mind as I knew the trade-off would be no traffic and I was right. We did cycle by a few bars that were still hopping and had a good laugh at those silly people partying until the wee hours, unaware of course, that I was just about to come down with the plague. Karma at work I’d say.

At the train station Ian went to find out where we needed to go with the bikes only to learn that the train would be delayed until 7 am, which actually turned out to be 8 am and that we were to put the bikes into the baggage car ourselves.

We settled onto a bench and enjoyed a quiet couple of hours people watching. I felt remarkably peaceful, so much so that I was moved to reflect on it and I can only say that my decision to sell in Vancouver and to focus my life in some new directions felt very right that morning. I also think it was the degree of familiarity I now feel on the bike and in Thailand and so I was excited about moving on without any of the normal anxiety that often accompanies travelling.

I think also it was the people watching and realizing how much I like Thai culture. That morning I watched a young girl hanging out with her mom for the day, at her mom’s snack kiosk at the train station. The girl had her dog with her, a poodle shaved so she/he had a tutu, and the girl made a little bed for herself and the dog on the floor of the kiosk, maneuvering the dog so he had his head on the pillow beside her. Her mother accepted all this and just stepped over the pair of them as she went about her business in the kiosk. I watched another mom at work, the lady responsible for the power washer used to wash the train. Her son decided he wanted to ride on it. She scolded him the first time he tried to climb on it but then gave up and he sat happily on top of it while she took a break from washing down the cars. I loved that these ladies were able to bring their kids to work.

After being here for two months I really believe we are over-regulated at every level (municipally and provincially at least) and that this interferes with entrepreneurship and contributes to higher anxiety levels – or maybe it’s those higher anxiety levels that make us over-regulated to begin with. I’ve heard of a couple of recent studies in Europe that say we are regulating our children’s lives to such a degree that they are growing up without having ever taken a risk. Google the topic and you’ll see what I mean.

I enjoyed the last week in Chiang Mai, doing some of the touristy things Ian and I hadn’t got around to. We cycled to the zoo and although we both struggle with the idea of animals in captivity I have to admit I enjoyed it. I also spent a great day with Pat, a friend we met through Dave and Debby and we had a blast, visiting the hot springs again and then hitting up some of the artisan shops I’ve been wanting to visit. We then met up with Ian and made a great Mediterranean style dinner back at the guesthouse. Oh and yes I think I mentioned something about too much beer ha ha.

The silk factory is worth a visit – it is one in a whole string of artisan places along San Kampaeng Road and the next time I’m in Chiang Mai I will spend at least another day there (sans Ian who finds all that stuff boring). At the silk factory we got to see the whole silk making process from moth to worm to cocoon and getting the thread from the cocoon and then onto spinning wheel and loom. The silk was gorgeous. We also visited a shop that makes umbrellas and a lacquer ware workshop. Pat had arranged a tuk tuk for the whole day and we got an awesome deal at 500 baht (16.00 dollars Canadian). Photos of the silk factory are courtesy of Pat.

The flu is not fun under any circumstances but it certainly has been a challenge this last week and a half – I finally saw a doctor in Ayutthaya after three days of non-improving symptoms and opted for the whole-meal deal pharmaceutical solution: prescribed cold meds including antibiotics, anti-fever etc., all for 12 bucks including the doctor’s visit. Fortunately, Tony’s Guesthouse in Ayutthaya was a good place to be sick. We had a large air con room and the rest of the guesthouse, an old rambling teak building with some beautiful Thai art on display, had all kinds of cubby holes to sit in so Ian was able to escape the sick room and get some work done. The place is popular with backpackers and despite being ill I enjoyed watching them come and go when I emerged from my room for meals in the guesthouse restaurant.

As I write this in Hua Hin, whether it’s the meds or just time, I am finally feeling human again although still a day or two away from being able to cycle.

Ian and I had to rent a minivan to get us to Hua Hin with the bikes. I think the distance is a few hundred kms, through Bangkok and it took us about 3 hours. We paid about 100.00 dollars which seems a reasonable deal. I am much better as I write this but there was no way I could deal with trains or buses the day we left Ayutthaya.

We have found a lovely guesthouse in Hua Hin (Byrds). Our guesthouse and the neighbouring ones are old ramshackle places built on stilts out over the water. At night, if we turn air con off, we can hear the tide coming in under the building. We share a patio with the rest of the guesthouse and we’re enjoying the view of the small beach and fish boats so much we are reluctant to leave the property. The room is a little run down but well worth the 700 baht (23.00) a night and I would not trade our proximity to the water nor the sound of the ocean to stay at the Hilton next door. We plan to spend a couple of extra days here before we head south, making sure I am truly well as it is quite hot (35) before I get back on the bike.

Ciao for now.

Asia/SE Asia

Home is where the Panniers are — Winding it Down in Chiang Mai


After months on the road with no more than a week in one place, Chiang Mai felt like home pretty much as soon as we’d unpacked our panniers. That feeling of arriving home was even stronger after leaving our stuff in our room here in the R.C.N. Court and Inn and travelling for a few days up to Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and into Myanmmar to get our Thai visas stamped and then taking the bus back to Chiang Mai. I guess that ability to be home wherever we are and the sale of my condo in Vancouver confirms my nomadic identity – at least for the next 13 or so months.

There is comfort in knowing how adaptable I can be, although it is no particular talent of mine. I think all human beings are amazingly adaptable but I’ve been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to experience being nomadic and to learn that home is something we create no matter where we are or for how long we stay. Some painful losses have taught me that it is the loss of people we love that hurts, not the loss of our stuff. I don’t see the need for total asceticism but in a society that preaches absolute consumerism, to the degree that we often define the value of an individual according to the value of what that individual owns, I see value in learning not to be too attached to material things when that attachment leads to working at a job you don’t like or fear of change.

That being said, I am looking forward to buying a little house on the Island and I’m enjoying looking at the jewel colors and mirror mosaics on Thai temples and statuary and imagining them somewhat transplanted. I find myself thinking about how I might re-create bits and pieces at home — I see jewel-colored glass door pulls on white cabinets; I see jade-green, ruby red and gold glass mosaic on garden pots and vinegar bottles. I imagine a red lacquer-painted second-hand dresser with a gold naga stenciled on in metallic gold paint. I notice gardens and garden features in all the outdoor cafes we eat in here and make note of what might work in a back yard garden in Ladysmith. I like the creative challenge of defining a new home space.

And when I’m not wandering around looking at the head-dress on a white concrete temple elephant, I’m taking care of business, often in the early hours of the day when Chiang Mai and Vancouver time zones intersect during business hours. After many conversations with realtors, the financial advisor, and friends helping with logistics, and many trips to the photocopy print and scan store, I am happy to say it is almost all done. Still another couple of conversations with the notary in Vancouver and a trip out to a notary here and we can wrap up the condo sale and focus on the boat sale…

I try to take some days entirely off and we’ve had a couple of nice day trips when I do. We went out to the Sankampaeng hot springs with a couple of friends last week. We took a songthaew (a pick up truck with benches in the back) for 1.60 each, each way, about 60 kms round trip. In addition to the geyser, and pool where you can cook eggs (our friend Alyce cooked quail eggs for us) there was a small canal that was almost too hot to soak our feet in and then a large swimming pool which was about 98 degrees. We relaxed for an hour in the pool and had a couple of good water fights with a bunch of school kids who were out on a field trip.

We also managed to get out to meet the Chiang Mai Cycling club which meets every Sunday at 7 am outside the Tapei Gate. The membership director lady was very nice, spoke some English and handed us a microphone to introduce ourselves to the forty or so Thais decked out in spandex and ready to ride. I don’t know how many of them understood us, but they applauded and invited us to ride with them. We were actually there hoping for a swap meet (we read that these happen occasionally) as we had some bike grips that were too big for my handlebars. We were able to sell them for a little money and then declined the invitation to ride as we already had our own itinerary planned.

Then we headed across the street to the Art Cafe, across from the Tapei Gate and between the Starbucks and McDonalds (you really can get anything you want here) and after breakfast headed out of town on the bikes, passing through Chinatown and over the Mae Ping River, along highway 1006 out into the country where we found small concrete paved lanes to ride on amongst the rice fields.

Yesterday I had an early birthday celebration with Mary a new friend I’ve met in Chiang Mai. She wanted to celebrate leaving Chiang Mai and moving onto to her next adventure which is hiking the Santiago do Compostela with her partner Dan. We treated ourselves to a 3.5 hour spa. For 60 bucks including tip we headed out in a tuk tuk to Zabai Thai Massage and Spa and had a Thai massage, a body scrub, an oil/aromatherapy massage and a facial. A terrific deal and a lovely day.

We’ve had some very nice dinners together with another couple we met who live in Powell River, B.C. We got talking to Janet and Wayne in a local Japanese restaurant and discovered that they also have a boat hauled out in Jack’s Boat Yard up in Lund where we left Ian’s boat so many months ago.

I’ve finally gotten around to a little cooking in the communal kitchen and have spent a couple of fun afternoons shopping in our local market and doing a little entertaining. I love markets and Ian and I have agreed that this is something I am better off doing on my own. So I’ve also spent some quality time wandering around the Sunday night market that sets up two blocks from our guesthouse and sells local crafts. On my own I can take my time wandering around the stalls checking out jewelry, textiles and carving. I am practicing good restraint but have decided to get together a bundle of stuff to send home and to Ottawa.

As comfortable as we are we realize we have ten days left here and so we’re beginning to plan our next moves. We’ve got a rough itinerary that has us leaving Chiang Mai on the train and doing some cycling to the southern train line. We may spend a few days in a couple of small towns as we make our way down the peninsula by bike and train and then cycle across to the island we like in the Andaman Sea. We’ve got a tentative guesthouse reservation in Bangkok and our tickets to Instanbul are booked April 13. We are then on the road again in a big way until we stop in France in August. We are happy that we managed to find a place to rent in France as when I began to do a little research we discovered that places were getting booked up for August and realized that we had to make some decisions and commitments to ensure we would find a spot for our next month off the road. We found what looks to be a beautiful townhouse that we we will share with our friend Wanda who is planning a well-deserved extended summer vacation this year.

We are really enjoying a fantastic trip and feel very lucky to have the opportunity to do so much travelling this year.

Asia/SE Asia

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.

Asia/SE Asia

The Expat Experiment — A Month in Chiang Mai


Chiang Khan to Loei 50.59 km
Phu Ruea to Dan Sai 50.00 km
Dan Sai to Nakon Thai (10 kms beyond) 61.13 km
Nakon Thai (about 10 km outside ) Phitsanoluk 81.85 km
Phitsanoluk to Chiang Mai – we took the bus. Its bloody hilly!

We’re off the bikes for a month except day rides and commuting in Chiang Mai. This is the first of two one-month breaks we planned for this year of cycling. The next one is scheduled for August in France. We will, however, continue to take the odd week off here and there.

We are almost at the 4000 km mark and I have to say the big mountain climbs are still hard for me. They must be easier since I started this trip I guess but after all that flat riding – essentially since the Lao/Vietnam border, getting into the mountains en route to Dan Sai and to Phu Ruea was still tough for me. We were about 10 km out of Loei when the first long climb started – probably about 10 km with some steep bits. We also climbed out of Dan Sai for five or six, again with steep bits. As usual, though, the mountain scenery was beautiful and the traffic light. Maybe one day I will manage to get through a climb without cursing at some point…Close to Phu Ruea I passed a sign that said STEAK AHEAD and was very happy to find that Ian, who was ahead of me of course, had pulled into the roadside restaurant to stop. We had a great meal (steak!) and continued on for another 10 km or so and then stopped at a mountain resort (and there were a number of lovely resorts) frequented by Thais, all wearing toques and scarves (it was 15 degrees at night oh brrrr ☺) We were the only farangs and the only downside to a beautiful night was a lot of bad singing. The Thais do love their karaoke but I swear they are all tone deaf! Luckily they stopped by 10 pm.

We both felt a huge wave of nostalgia when we arrived in Phitsanoluk. I don’t know if it was because it was the end of another cycling leg or because it was such a typical large Thai town, a city really and we loved all its Thai characteristics. It was also quite hot once we hit the plains and I enjoyed rolling by brilliant green rice fields and coconut palms.

I also enjoyed the bus out of Phitsanoluk, especially when I got to see the 20 km climb I missed on highway 11. Although it has a wide shoulder it is quite busy and I think I will prefer practicing some hills around Chiang Mai on quieter roads. As usual the bus was great: we were charged 3.00 each to put the bikes down with the luggage and then less then 10.00 for the two of us to ride for 8 hours.

We both love Chiang Mai. It is very western in the old town and if this was the only part of Thailand I’d ever seen I would find it too commercialized. However, given all the beautiful rural places we’ve seen and all the small towns we’ve visited I am not bothered by the western aspects at all. I am thoroughly enjoying the fact that there is a pub on every corner and an amazing choice of restaurants. Within a 10 block radius we have an Irish pub, a middle eastern restaurant, a few Indian restaurants, a number of Thai restaurants of course, British places with fish and chips and bangers and mash, a big Mexican place, a French-inspired bar called the Writers Club where you can get steak and frites and red wine. The list is endless and it is all easily walkable and in a perfect climate – 20 degrees at night and 25 in the daytime (although I hear it is supposed to get up to 35 this week).

Our room is large, air-conditioned if we want it, has cable tv, internet, a fridge and western style bathroom, a large wardrobe, a desk and a small café table and chairs. We have a view of a temple. We are paying 200.00 dollars a month. There is a small restaurant on the premises where we can lounge about outside and eat pad thai or a curry dinner for 1.25 each. There is also a shared kitchen if we want to cook ourselves. An expensive meal out with a carafe of wine, a steak with peppercorn and frites and a pork chop with mashed potatoes, apple pie with ice cream and an additional glass of wine was 28.00. Last night we had an Indian meal for 18.00 (for the two of us). Breakfast is typically 3.00 for eggs, coffee, croissant and often ham or bacon. Many of these places are outside or have outside spaces and I love being able to be outdoors much of the time.

We can’t afford to come home!

And so I am seriously thinking of retirement with some freelance work thrown in and a lifestyle where we are here for 6 months and somewhere in the Gulf Islands or Vancouver Island for the other six months. Accomplishing this sooner rather than later has become a serious project in the last week and will be what I focus on while we are in Chiang Mai. I’m building complicated retirement calculators in excel… I’m selling my boat…I’m looking into health insurance costs and property taxes on the island…I’m trying to do a little freelance article writing to prove to myself that this is all doable…

And when I am not sitting at my computer calculating the cost of my existence I am wandering about the neighborhood. The old town in Chiang Mai is a maze of little lanes called sois. On a typical morning we walk 200 metres to our favourite restaurant and bakery, saying hello to neighborhood dogs along the way. We have made our first trip to the expat grocery store where I can buy cheese and wine…not cheap but no worse than home and possibly better as wine is 10 to 12 dollars a bottle rather than 15 to 20 (although there is a selection of pricier wines as well). Riding a bike around town is the best way to get around and I am really looking forward to more exploration after number crunching in the mornings.

The tough part is missing friends and family and we will eventually rectify that with our six months in Canada, six months in Asia plan.

Ciao for now from Chiang Mai…