The Burning Season

I’ve grown up along US Interstate 10 pretty much my whole life, with the minor exceptions of a couple of pre-school interludes in SF and San Diego, and of course my 2+ months of traveling.  Let it be known that anyone who can be comfortable in Phoenix during monsoon season can be comfortable in pretty much any warm weather climate.  Nonetheless, after over 24 years in LA, I was really looking forward to going someplace where it rained, and rainy Chiang Mai, with rain and Buddhist temples and rain and asians and rain and WiFi and rain sounded perfect.

And when I read the blogs, and looked at the weather forecasts, and got a sense of what was up, it was clear that — even aside from the at-the-time-unexpected difficulty of getting truly good WiFi — I was going to have to wait a little longer for perfection.  December through March are dry, and November and April aren’t much better, though the rest of the year is as wet as anyone could hope for.  And March through May are effectively summer, with the average high temp in April at around 97°F (not even counting global warming effects).  But Ok, fine.  That was my timing, and I don’t fear the heat… no problem.

Of slightly greater concern, however, was the Burning Season. I’d read about this: from February into April, when everything dries up, the farmers set fire to their harvested fields, burning what’s left and letting the ash settle into the soil to help refertilize it.  And if the ash stayed there, that would be great.  But, of course, it doesn’t, and it blows all over Northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma; I’m not sure if all 3 countries are joining in the fire party, but they’re all breathing the result.  Now, what I had read was, basically, “Yeah, it’s not great, but it’s not quite as bad as they say.”  Well, “as bad as they say” is probably this paragraph from Wikitravel, which basically says — and I’m only giving a rough approximation here — “Oh my gods, dude, get the hell out! Why are you even there? You could die!”

Other places I’ve read just content themselves with subtle statements like, “Expats tend to go elsewhere during these months.”

Now, speaking as an LA native, albeit one who moved there after California became more strict about auto emissions and the air started to improve, my considered opinion is, “Oh my gods, dude, get the hell out! Why are you even there? You could die!”

Ha ha, I kid, of course….. <Sorry, I had to pause to hack up a lung.>  In retrospect, I might have a made a better choice if I’d waited until, say, July to come here.  I could have gone to southern Thailand and hung out on the beaches.  I could have gone to Ecuador — yes, Buddhist temples are nice, but so’s breathing.  But I had my lifeline, my “Hey, here’s a place you could go and live cheaply and all of the rest of your life will be wonderful.”  So, I listened to the “It’s not really so bad” bits, and said, “I’ll live.”  Well, the jury’s still out on that conclusion.

I noticed this problem a little over 2 weeks in.  I’d changed to the Sang Serene Hotel (isolated, poor WiFi, ants, walk through a gauntlet of hostile dogs to get there), and I had noticed that you could sometimes smell ash, but I was really more concerned about all the car exhaust I was breathing as I walked around.  But then, one night, sleeping with the AC running, I realized that everything smelled smokey.  Whatever filters the AC used, they were by no means enough, and it smelled like I was right next to an actively burning building.  Very unpleasant, didn’t feel great in the lungs, a bit sickening.  It got better, but in the time since then that sort of thing has come and gone, lighter or stronger, sometimes I don’t notice it, often I do.  I was considering buying a cloth face mask, which a fair number of people wear, but they’re a bit of a nuisance so I was ignoring it and taking detox remedies energetically to counter the effects.  And I was doing Ok.

Then I moved to CMStay, last Thursday, February 26th, and everything went kinda to hell.  For several reasons.

I really should preface this by saying that CMStay is really fairly nice for a Thai budget hotel.  It’s clean, it has everything you need: WiFi (and LAN), shower, fridge, AC, TV (I have yet to turn mine on in any of my hotels, but it’s here), as much bottled water as you can drink, washing machines (20 baht per load) and drying lines, options to rent scooters.  It’s fine. Really. $15/night.  It’s fine.


Tell you what, let me do it this way: here are some pictures of the room, with commentary, both pro and con.  (The pictures that the hotel uses on their website are clearly for a different room — probably mostly kind of comparable, but different.)

The location, inside the Old City, 1/2 a block from the Loop of Death. More traffic noise than I'd like, but just muffled enough to be livable, especially with the AC. Probably too much exhaust though, as it turns out.

The location, inside the Old City, 1/2 a block from the Loop of Death. More traffic noise than I’d like, but just muffled enough to be livable, especially with the AC. Probably too much exhaust though, as it turns out.


My top floor unit, #401, next to the stairwell. Note the AC unit to the left, and the louvered windows and awning, both probably good for keeping out rain, and also for restricting any view.



State of the art security system (push-bolts on the inside). I’m just waiting for the door to accidentally latch itself while I’m inside. The latch on #301, on the floor below me, seems to threaten to, and I’ve pushed their latch more open as I’ve passed several times since I’ve been here.


Not my view. A view from the east end of the hallway/balcony, by unit #405. Still you get to see a bit of the city from here, and looking more scenic than it does from ground level.

The view into my room. Far door leads to fridge and bathroom.  Hey, whatever, it's perfectly clean.

The view into my room. Far door leads to fridge and bathroom. Hey, whatever, it’s perfectly clean.

Stepping into the room, you see the TV, and what passes for a "desk" and "chairs", ideal for whiling away the hours playing games or writing blogs.  Not shown is a wardrobe to my right.

Stepping into the room, you see the TV, and what passes for a “desk” and “chairs”, ideal for whiling away the hours playing games or writing blogs. Not shown is a wardrobe to my right.

I should specifically pause here to note that if the mattress looks a bit lame to you, it’s because it is, alternating between a bit too firm and a bit too sculpted by hundreds of prior tenants.  Thai beds don’t normally have top sheets, just a bottom sheet and a comforter. In this case, the comforter is one (or two) blankets that, while warm enough for the season, are not really long enough to fully cover a 5’10.5″ American. So, there’s that.

The room from the other side, featuring the dim lighting from the louvres and the interior piece of the really quite effective AC unit.

The room from the other side, featuring the dim lighting from the louvres and the interior piece of the really quite effective AC unit.

Don't know what you call this little room; it's hardly a kitchen.  But note that the windows are only screens, they do not have glass.  So, if the AC is turned on, you need to close the door to this space or it flows out the windows.  And nothing out here, this little room or the adjacent bathroom, is air conditioned. This is annoying.

Don’t know what you call this little room; it’s hardly a kitchen. But note that the windows are only screens, they do not have glass. So, if the AC is turned on, you need to close the door to this space or it flows out the windows. And nothing out here, this little room or the adjacent bathroom, is air conditioned. This is annoying, when you come back sweaty from a walk, want a shower, and the shower space is so warm that it’s hard not to still be sweating when you’re done.

The Bathroom.

The Bathroom.

The wonders of the bathroom space are too many to put in a simple caption:

  • There is no partition between the shower and the rest of it.  You shower, it all gets wet, and the floor is still wet when you walk in, for several hours after.
  • This actually proves useful, as there’s a line of ants that comes in from one corner of the restroom to explore the rest of the unit. But if you flood the floor and corners with the shower, twice a day, the problem is mostly solved.
  • The water heater is electric, on-demand, like most of them here. (This one took me longer to figure out how to make work, thanks to several switches and dials and also to a loose front that makes it possible to turn the temperature dial without the the dial actually engaging the interior controls.)
  • The shower nozzle is the height of my shoulder.  Fortunately, I’m bendy.
  • Note the positioning of the master switch for the electric heater, just above and to the right of the shower nozzle.  Water + live current makes every morning (and afternoon) an adventure!  (In fairness, I’ve never once seen water splatter on it, probably because the pressure from the building’s well is really low.)
  • Not shown is the flourescent light fixture above, similar to the one in the main room.   When you turn it on, it flickers and sputters to light, makes tinkly, sputtery, turning on noises, and brings the bathroom to life in a way that you normally only see in movies about drug users or in Japanese B horror flicks.  I wait until it’s fully turned on before I walk in, because (a) it’s cheerier then, (b) the floor is usually wet and that makes me nervous with the electric light show going on above me, and (c) Japanese monsters.

I chose this hotel on the strength of its internet connection, and I’ve had mixed results there.  Sometimes, it’s a great signal, and often claims over 30 Mb/s down, over 3Mb/s up, and a ping of under 300ms.  I couldn’t use my Apple Airport Express WiFi device; the network shut down each time I plugged it in (it would come back up after I removed it).  It plays ESO (Elder Scrolls Online) without a hitch, and that’s great.  But, weirdly, it can get really laggy streaming video, and sometimes web pages take forever to load.   I *think* my Apple laptop is having some issues working with my Tunnelbear VPN, but that wouldn’t explain the Youtube lag on the iPad.  Anyway, the results have been mixed, internet-wise, which is frustrating.

It was massively frustrating when I checked in on Thursday, and the internet started cutting in and out because — as it turned out when I inquired — the ISP was doing maintenance on the network.  (In addition to the network not tolerating my Airport Express.) So, I check in, the internet isn’t behaving, the room has various weirdnesses, it’s hot outside, the room is basically a windowless box, and I hear traffic, smell smoke, and realize just how close the Loop of Death and its exhaust are.  There was a lot of sighing and being bummed going on.

Then I went to grab dinner at the Birds Nest Cafe, where I’d met Damien a couple of weeks before, and the open-air place was really warm, and I discovered tiny ants crawling up my legs and biting me. I rather frantically brushed them off and moved my seat; dinner was good, being dinner less so.

I slept a bit fitfully that night, and then… well, to make a long and rather painful story short, Friday through Monday were headaches off and on all day.  Not killer migraines, just neck and back out, cranial plates locking, and enough headache to make me not want to go anywhere, do anything, or think too hard.  I’m moderately sure that this was due to the air quality, and I’ve worked pretty continuously to fix my body’s reaction to it.  I’ve made pretty good progress on that, I think.  Tuesday was pretty good, Wednesday wasn’t great, but Thursday was good again and I think I’m over the hump, but I’m really looking forward to getting out of here and going to the next place where I at least won’t have the traffic exhaust to contend with.

In truth, I think that’s what put me over the top.  The fire smoke has been better since I moved here, but I know the exhaust has to be worst, and I think that it’s the latter more than the former that’s killing me.  The worst part of it has been that the room is a box, and I wouldn’t mind that quite so much except that I was feeling lousy and staying in, and the boxness of it loomed so large that it’s become the only thing that matters.  I pushed myself to get out on a couple of days.  I got out to the Sunday Market again (that huge bazaar I mentioned when I arrived), since I was right here, and it was great to get out.  (Less great to come back to the power out on the 4th floor, when I just wanted a shower and AC, but I called the owner and he came and fixed it in 10 minutes.)  And Monday morning I took a walk to the southwestern corner of the city, and about 3/4 of the way to the east corner, and back up and around, circling a big chunk of the Old City.  Tuesday, feeling pretty decent, I walked east out almost to the Ping River to go to the American Consulate, to apply for a passport card and talk to them about the visa situation (they didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but at least they didn’t raise any red flags), and I stopped at the Blue Diamond on the way back for lunch (very nice).

And this morning, again feeling good, I walked out west to the my “old” favorite the Larder Cafe for breakfast, found out it was closed for maintenance, went to Rustic And Blue instead, and had a great couple of hours just sitting in their yard, after breakfast (coffee and a yummy avocado eggs benedict) and reading Twitter.

Gods, I really needed this.

Gods, I really needed this.

Those times that I got out were really good.  Tuesday, walking to and from the Consulate, I could see that the east part of the Old City has more westerners and seems to be a better kept neighborhood than where I am, which just feels drab and hot and rundown.  I might consider staying in that northeast part in the future — if I’m still being a transient when the rainy months come and the air clears.  And the walk into Nimman and back this morning was great.  While I was sitting at breakfast, browsing Twitter, I ran into a Dilbert cartoon and it suddenly reminded me just how lucky I was to be able to do this.  Yeah, the last few days had been a bit painful, but these things are solvable and they pass.  But now, here I was sitting in a nice garden, having nice things to eat and drink, under a blue sky, a bit warm but enough of a breeze to be comfortable, and not in a cubicle dealing with the crazy Dilbert-bosses that I’d had for the last 20 months there.  It was a very good feeling.

Then, on the walk home, I stopped by a mall just a bit northwest of my hotel, wandered around in the AC, and found what I think must be one of the 2 Apple stores that I’d heard were in Chiang Mai:

The homeland of my people.

Ok, it’s not a *big* Apple store, but the Thai are a small people, so I guess it fits.

I also found a pretty huge bowling alley, that I expect to visit rather less frequently.  And, wandering about, I passed a place that looked like a proper barber shop — not merely a place with a barber shop striped pole in front, that actually has a bunch of stylists and advertises pedicures and waxing, in a clear violation of international standards for signage — but a place where a Man can Go In, Sit Down, and get a Haircut with a Minimum of Complication and Conversation.  It had that vibe to it.  I’d been meaning to send Robin (the motorcycle guy) a question about where he got his haircut; he looked like a man who knew a good barber.  But I hadn’t yet and I was becoming shaggy (by my standards), and this place looked right.  Thankfully, my instincts were correct.  Although this guy was a marked contrast to the industrial buzz saw that my New York haircut had been, his vastly slower, gentler technique nonetheless did the job, and set me back 200 baht (about $6.00).  I believe I have found my man, for all such future needs.

And then, wonder of wonders, I found something kind of like a small department store in that mall and there they had — I can barely bring myself to announce it, such is my delight:

That's right. It's a washcloth!!!!

That’s right. It’s a washcloth!!!!

A washcloth!  No hotel since I left the US has had washcloths, and I’ve been soaping my hands and relying on fingerprints and water-wrinkled skin to do what good, honest fibers were meant to.  If someone had told me that the thing I’d most regret leaving behind was a washcloth… well, I’d have believed them really, because, come on.  It’s not any great conceptual stretch.  But I never expected to be in all these hotel rooms and never see a washcloth.  It’s just weird.  Problem now solved.

Then I found a grocery store, Tom’s or Tot’s or something like that — it’s sort of a Vons, to Rimpig’s Whole Foods — and bought another chocolate Cornetto, and walked the remaining way home feeling very pleased with myself.  A bit of meditation, some blogging, and dinner will shortly be up.  (Tuna and cheese.  Yummmm….)

So, that’s been the tale.  I’d wanted to blog much of this much sooner, but the whole headachey thing really made the effort kind of unconfrontable.  I did manage to get some books read, despite the headache (I’ll mention them in a future post), and I watched a lot of video, and played a bunch of Elder Scrolls while my connection still supports it.  And then tomorrow, I move to a hotel right next to Coffee Monster, the breakfast place I was going to when I stayed at Sang Serene.  The hotel is the B2 Black, part of a chain in Thailand.  I don’t know what the WiFi is going to be like, but at least I have Coffee Monster next door when I need it (especially for ESO). And, more importantly, after this place I decided it was worth splurging a bit and booked the Presidential Suite ($40/night), which is on the top, 8th floor and has a patio/balcony where I plan to relax and read and enjoy a real honest to gosh view.  I’m seriously looking forward to it.

Oh, one more thing.  Daylight Saving Time starts for you guys this Sunday.  The US does it, Thailand doesn’t, so when it takes effect I’ll be only 11 hours ahead for my East Coast friends (instead of 12), and 14 hours ahead for my West Coast ones (instead 15).   So 8pm ET / 5pm PT will be 7am my time.  This makes the math a bit more nuisancy than it is now, but also narrows the evening window that we’re conveniently up at the same time.  Oh well, what are you gonna do?

As a parting gift, I give you this, encountered on my walk this morning:

Devil Elephant, showing off his best assets.

Devil Elephant, showing off his best assets.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Burning Season

  1. Sarah says:

    What a week, Charles. First I was worried (all that smoke), then I was bummed (’cause you were bummed), then I got really scared (watched the entire Grudge trailer — aye, aye, aye!), but, “Yay!” to happy endings. I love that you are experiencing an adventure instead of a Dilbertesque life, and will soon be staying in what looks like a very, very far climb for ants.

    • Charles says:

      Yay happy endings, indeed! The new place has been working out although, despite being on the 8th floor, it is not too high for either ants or lizards. But neither are as intrusive as they were in prior places, so it’s all good. (Oops, spoilers!)

  2. Florida says:

    I guess the smoke is why Damien chose to leave for a while. Your presidential suite sounds fabulous – do send pictures of your room/suite in your next blog. Actually, at $40 a night for 30 days, it’s still not all that expensive if you wanted to stick around until the president showed up. Or maybe before you commit to a lease on more permanent housing, you could travel and therefore get away from the smoke like Damien evidently did. Maybe the beach, as long as there are no Tsunamis? After all, you have that scooter……..

    • Charles says:

      Funny that you should suggest that, I’m giving the idea of going to Southern Thailand for a few weeks some serious consideration.

  3. Familywitch says:

    I am with Sarah. I was getting pretty worried, and a little excited that you may be coming back for a little while (yes I’m selfish). But I am glad that all seems to be better and that you are able to handle the headaches. Oh, and I hate the trailer!!! Could not watch! But I understand the inclusion.

    I also agree with Florida. If the suite is nice, stay a while…you deserve it. I understand that the price is kind of high for long term, and it might be nice to feel a little more settled. ???

  4. Mark Wolfe says:

    I guess retirement could have consisted of living at “Sunset Paradise Village and Mortuary”, sitting around with widows and talking about your most recent Dr’s visit, and how much you are looking forward to your next. This is at least more interesting. I agree with the gang that your suite should be a great change and make your home environment a little more cheery. Upload pix asap so we know you are back at zen. Everyone I know misses you and I know a lot of people.

    • Charles says:

      I know very few people, and I haven’t been involved in this much missing since I rolled with the Last Picked basketball team in high school.

  5. Brandon says:

    Unlike the above posters, I have not been worried about you, because you are FREE and you can leave Chiang Mai any time you like, go to the beaches, visit Vietnam, and continue your walkabout, because that’s what freedom is, wifi or no. You can do the whole thing wearing a yellow helmet with pussycat ears, if you like, and you can even bring along a washcloth, as it turns out. You, my friend, have no attachments, and are blessed with the means to take advantage of a most advantageous situation. Even if that means staying in the Presidential Suite and living like a lord for a while, or, I guess, like a president.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *