I couldn’t leave SE Asia behind without saying something about Bangkok. What is the appeal of this city? After all it is enormous; millions and millions live here. There is some of the worst gridlock on the planet, the air is polluted, and especially in April it is hot and steamy. Nevertheless, there is something attractive about it. Perhaps it’s the peacefulness of so many of the people, the absence of horns among all this traffic, or the neighbourhoods that seem like small towns with their street vendors and local people outdoors visiting with one another. There is the tolerance of stray dogs, of bad driving, and of a very visible bar girl scene. Of course, in such a tropical place, so much takes place outdoors but at the same time it is a modern city. On this trip we discovered, by mistake, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, an ultra-modern piece of architecture equal to any of its kind in the world. Whatever it is, there is a sense of arriving home when I arrive in Bangkok although I haven’t spent all that much time in this city. I don’t have an explanation.
We went to the beach. Now, I’m not one to lie on a beach for two weeks and call that a vacation and I didn’t do that this time. While there was a beach, I’m using the term beach more figuratively here. We left Chiang Mai on a train and spent a week or so in a stiflingly hot Ayutthaya while Sue recovered from some sort of bug. We’d had enough of that and hired a car to take us and our bikes to Hua Hin, a small city on the Gulf of Thailand near the north end of the Malay Peninsula, a three-hour drive from Bangkok.
Away from the beach, Hua Hin is a typical Thai small city but as you descend toward the shore, many tourist services begin to appear, including the inevitable girly bars. That whole scene is a fascinating sociological study.
We found a creaky, wooden guesthouse built on stilts over the beach. When the tide came in at night we could hear the water lapping under our room. There was a lovely shared wooden deck that kept us mesmerized and it took a few extra days for us to get on our bikes for the 50 km ride south to Dolphin Bay. We lived in luxury there in a posh bungalow with a pool outside the door and a palm-fringed beach across the road. We got stuck there too, socializing with other guests, hanging around with a kitten that had more personality than any other cat I’ve ever met, and spending hours at a time in the pool or across in the ocean. In both cases there was zero shock upon entering the water. In fact, one night I floated in the pool looking up between the palm fronds at a starry sky. The water felt tepid when I walked in — my kind of water despite the 35+C temperatures.
Chiang Mai must be the easiest place in the world for the expat. There is everything for the westerner such as a variety of ethnic restaurants, endless guesthouses and hotels, live NHL games at an Irish pub, and an easy going pace that suits everyone. If it seems too western, though, you don’t have to go far to be right back in Thailand. Turn down a lane and you’ll find stores with only Thai script on their signs and houses where the locals live. In the nearby countryside to the west is a mountain range and to the east are the greenest fields you can imagine, growing rice year round due to irrigation. Then, of course, there are the over 300 temples (wats) with some ruins dating back to the beginnings of the city in the 13th century.
We grew roots here in Chiang Mai, staying for two months rather than our planned one month. I’ll miss it when we leave.