All I Need Is The Air That I Breathe

Sunday, September 20th

The first Sunday after my arrival, I had a tour scheduled. Meetup.com is something that I joined shortly after I got here in February, mainly to join that philosophy chat group that I ended up feeling rather ambivalent about.  There were other Chiang Mai groups who also scheduled things on Meetup.com (including some sort of beer-appreciation group that sounded interesting until I read further and it was all about entrepreneurs getting together, like some sort of adult(ish) bro-party), and one of them was a walking tour group led by a local.  I joined the group, and tried to attend one of the tours, but Google Maps directed me to completely the wrong location and I missed the start.  Then the air got bad, I stopped going out much, they had some overnight tours that I didn’t want to join, and I never ended up rejoining them before I left Chiang Mai.

This time, they had a walk around a neighborhood east of the Old City, across the Ping River (description and tour pictures here), and I’d signed on for this one before I left Sapporo, intending to make up for some of my failings of the previous trip by deliberately getting out more.  Google claimed the location was a 68 minute walk away.  I could have taken my rental motorbike (which I hadn’t ridden yet since I got it home on Friday), but I felt the need for the exercise.  An hour walk there, 3 hours walking around, and an hour walk back sounded pretty good, and I left only a couple of minutes late.  Well, about 5 minutes, really, and then was paranoid about being late despite knowing that I surely walked faster than Google was estimating.  But then I got held up at a couple of traffic lights — they take a *long* time to cycle here — so I ended up pushing harder to make up for the time and actually got there about 5 minutes early, which was perfect. (I was sweatier than I liked, but whatever.)  Unfortunately, nearly all of that route was along busy streets, with the usual lack of pollution controls having its effect.  I held my breath when particularly thick clouds of exhaust billowed up, but what can you do?

In case you don’t remember Chiang Mai’s layout, here’s a map of my route:

The walk to Kualek Cafe, in dotted blue. (Google insists on giving me a second choice in grey that takes 10 minutes longer. Tempting, but...)

The walk to Kualek Cafe, in dotted blue, skirting the northern edge of the Old City, along the Loop of Death. (Google insists on giving me a second choice in grey that takes 10 minutes longer. Tempting, but…)

There were 5 people on the tour, total.  The tour guide, a Chiang Mai native who goes by Tony Bigga (not his real name), teaches tourist studies at a local university, which makes doing tours a convenient side gig for his primary profession.  Then there were a couple of regular walking tour participants, an older American named Bruce who teaches (something) at another university in Thailand, a couple of months on, then a couple off back in the states; he has a Thai wife, though she wasn’t with us.  Another American, midway between our ages and a bit hefty, named Jim, who I think was a permanent resident there.  And a Brit named Neil in his 30s, who’s traveling generally (I’m not sure what he does for a living, it might involve photography).  Neil was a surprising case.  When he showed up he seemed a bit sarcastic and negative, but he gradually warmed up and became more relaxed and funny, told about his time studying and working in a Thai Buddhist commune nearly London, and was a strong contributor to our lunchtime political discussion.  The whole group was strong, much better than I had expected from a random group of people.

So I met them at this cafe just on the other side of the Ping River, and we proceeded to wander about that area, known as Wat Ket, which historically had a higher percentage of Burmese and Chinese settlers, and so the local temple architecture and restaurants tend to reflect that background.  Tony had a wealth of information about the period when northern Thailand was controlled by Burma, and the general who drove them out and became King Kawila.  Some of that information is captured in this wiki article, which is good because I remembered very little of it 5 minutes after Tony described it.  (A bunch of unfamiliar names, lack of broader historical context, and some indifference all took their toll.)  I do remember that, at a certain point, the Chiang Mai area was a bit underpopulated and the local king (who I feel like was the same King Kawila) started recruiting people from the hills and from other countries to come live there.  Northern Thailand was already ethnically distinct from Southern Thailand, and only became more so.  (From what I’ve seen, and heard discussed, they’re taller, thinner, lighter skinned, and nicer.)

That tour page has a bunch of photos from the trip, but here are a few of mine:

I passed this on the way to the Cafe, and again from the other side on the way back. I think it was called the Queen's Rose Garden, though the elephant statues stood out way more than the roses. Perhaps she doesn't get up here much.

I passed this on the way to the Cafe, and again from the other side on the way back. I think it was called the Queen’s Rose Garden, though the elephant statues stood out way more than the roses (even the giant, artificial ones). Perhaps she doesn’t get up here much.

Our first temple was San Pa Khoi, but I never thought to take a larger outside view, just some of the cool corner work on the roof:

Honestly, most of the buildings in this small complex weren't that impressive. The stain glass roof corners were the most interesting external feature.

Honestly, most of the buildings in this small complex weren’t that impressive. The stained glass roof corners were the most interesting external feature.

The interior of this temple, though, was pretty cool, with scenes from the Buddha's life painted on the walls.

The interior of this temple, though, was pretty cool, with scenes from the Buddha’s life painted on the walls.

A close up of the altar. You know those enthusiasts who have to collect one of every kind of a thing? Like Batman nerds with a bunch of different Batman statues? You see one and you say, "Oh, that's nice." Then two, "Ok, cool." Then 12 and you start edging towards the door. That. But with Buddhas.

A close up of the altar. You know those enthusiasts who have to collect one of every kind of a thing? Like Batman nerds with a bunch of different Batman statues? You see one and you say, “Oh, that’s nice.” Then two, “Ok, cool.” Then 12 and you start edging towards the door. That. But with Buddhas.

The door. Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!!

The door. Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!!

There weren’t many monks around, here or at the other temples.  I think Tony said they did more intense praying during the rainy season because it was too wet to be out, so they were elsewhere, doing that, instead of being out and about the temple grounds.

From there we walked through the local neighborhood, including a block-sized market with groceries and hot food.

An open-air market, like a giant tin warehouse with no walls, of which this shot is only a small part. (Markets in photos may be larger than they appear.)

An open-air market, like a giant tin warehouse with no walls, of which this shot is only a small part. (Markets in photos may be larger than they appear.)

The market had cooked food available, but I guess the serious cooking started later, at these stoves. And it started without me, because I have standards. (That's probably unfair; lots of people eat at these places with no ill effects. I rejoice for them.)

The market had cooked food available, but I guess the serious cooking started later, at these stoves. And it started without me, because I have hygiene standards. (That’s probably unfair; lots of people eat at these places with no ill effects. I rejoice for them.)

We continued on to another temple, which I think was called Wat Tha Satoy, and what a Satoy it was!

I *think* this is Wat Tha Satoy. Don't hold me to that, though, in case you were considering doing so.

I *think* this is Wat Tha Satoy. Don’t hold me to that, though, in case you were considering doing so.

The only Buddha I felt comfortable praying at. Couldn't tell you why....

The only Buddha I felt comfortable praying at. Couldn’t tell you why….

Like a gingerbread house, only made out of gold instead of sugar. (Which I'm sure we can all agree is better, and better for you.)

Like a gingerbread house, only made out of gold instead of sugar. (Which I’m sure we can all agree is a better building material than sugar, and better for you.)

Both of these temples had schools attached; once upon a time, Buddhist temples did all of the educating.  This is where you came to learn to read, do math, study astrology, and all of the other important subjects, even if you weren’t on a path to priesthood.  In modern times a lot of that education has moved out into regular schools and colleges, but many of the temples still have colleges run by the temple, and the monks who come from the poorer areas and the hill tribes come here, join the temples, and get educations.  Every Thai male joins a temple for a time when they reach adulthood, the way some countries have mandatory military service.  (I don’t think the temple time is legally mandatory, but it seems culturally so.)  Most only stay for the standard minimum, 3 months, and that’s what our guide had done (he’s 39 now).  But some stay longer, some take on priesthood as a career, some stay for the education before eventually leaving to find jobs that they’re now more qualified for, etc.

It explains why I see so many young monks in Chiang Mai.  It didn’t occur to me until I was writing this, but the monk population I’ve seen has not had an even age distribution at all.  It’s skewed radically younger.  I’ve seen them across the age spectrum, but by far the majority have been in their teens to early 20s.  And this is certainly why — all the young adults do it for a little while.  Only the dedicated — and hence correspondingly few — stay on to make a life out of it.

This does suggest that the monk population must have annual boom and bust cycles, expanding as the graduating senior class does their minimum time before starting college and then shrinking as those 3-monthers leave their longer-staying brethren behind.  I’ll have to remember to try to ask Tony about that on the next trip.

Anyway, from there we walked through the streets to the King Kawila monument by the Ping River:

This scene has a level of color saturation that I would think was kind of fake and cartoony if I saw it in a game or movie, but that's what it looked like. Except slightly more blinding with reflected sunlight that the iPhone is adjusting for; you're welcome.

This scene has a level of color saturation that I would think was kind of fake and cartoony if I saw it in a game or movie, but that’s what it looked like. Except slightly more blinding with reflected sunlight that the iPhone is adjusting for; you’re welcome.

One of the ways you can tell we’re near the river?  Flood markers.

I think this indicates that the flood waters rose over 5 meters past the river's normal level. Thankfully, this doesn't happen often -- just every few years.

We passed this in a neighborhood on the way to the monument.  I think this indicates that the flood waters rose over 5 meters past the river’s normal level. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen often — just every few years.

I think the last one must have been September 2011, because when I search “Chiang Mai flood” I see that date a lot.  With results like this video, almost certainly taken after the peak because it’s not raining.

Another way to tell you’re near the river?

The river. (Taken from the other side of the King Kawila monument.)

The river. (Taken from the other side of the King Kawila monument.)

Nothing suggests that you’re near a thing like the actual thing.  It’s not 100% reliable, of course (as the tiny writing on my car’s passenger-side mirror used to remind me), but then what is?  Still, as rule of thumbs go, this one’s pretty solid.

From there, we walked past a fairly well known restaurant which I only mention because a couple of our members went in to take pictures of the motorcycles that are prominently displayed within it. I did not do this, because I have seen motorcycles before and from that summit of relative privilege did not need to record the current examples despite their unusual placement.  It is possible that some of them were old.  Well, good for them, welcome to the club.

I have no idea what this place is, but it rivals Japan for incomprehensible English signage. (A fun game you can play here: Spot The Tourist. Hint: they're not wearing a motorcycle helmet.)

I have no idea what this place is, but it rivals Japan for incomprehensible English signage. (A fun game you can play here: Spot The Tourist. Hint: they’re not wearing a motorcycle helmet.)

We also passed a store that one of us went in to buy water from and brought out a couple of extra bottles that he offered around.  This was probably wise, given the heat and all, but I politely turned him down.  I learned long ago to avoid drinking when I travel, if I can’t count on finding restrooms.  And, yes, there’s at least one of you out there champing at the bit to warn me of the perils  of this strategy. (You know who you are!)  One can obviously take that principle to excess, but I have yet to experience heat prostration from it, so I must be managing that whole “moderation” thing well enough.  Yay, me.

(As I write this, a Thai kid lurches past me making an inarticulate noise, and I feel a tiny alert go off in my head, “Zombie!”  Thankfully, my brain correctly resolved my observations in less than a second, before I could leap up in alarm, or scream — which was good on its part, considering that it was the organ primarily at risk here.  Yay, brain.)

A very short time later, we arrived at a golf course, where we sat out for a bit at tree shaded tables, and chatted, and I risked drinking a small bottle of water (knowing that our lunch stop wasn’t far away).

Our guide was forever stopping to point out Rain Trees, which can grow to be quite large. (There's one outside my apartment that's easily 8 stories tall, maybe 9.) I even took pictures of a few of them to be polite, though I generally wasn't impressed. This one, though, was Worthy.

Our guide was forever stopping to point out Rain Trees, which can grow to be quite large. (There’s one outside my apartment that’s easily 8 stories tall, maybe 9.) I even took pictures of a few of them to be polite, though I generally wasn’t impressed with most of them. This one, though, was Worthy.

From there, we wandered through more streets, through another temple that I did not document — mainly because they were having funeral services/party.  Tony said that we could get free food if we stayed for the mourning, but we passed on.  There was a *really* tall tree that we passed — a tall, straight trunk that appeared redwood-competitive — but it didn’t photograph very impressively so you’ll have to take my word for it.  And there was a very cool building that suggested “chocolate factory” to some of us, though it certainly was not.

To me, it perfectly reflected the state of decay that so many Chiang Mai buildings rejoice in, the "I built it, now I never have to think about it again" school of architecture. I suspect that, in the Thai language, "maintenance" is a four letter word. But it's a tonal language and I can never get the accent right, so I shouldn't be considered authoritative.

To me, it perfectly reflected the state of decay that so many Chiang Mai buildings rejoice in, the “I built it, now I never have to think about it again” school of architecture. I suspect that, in the Thai language, “maintenance” is a four letter word. But it’s a tonal language and I can never get the accent right, so I shouldn’t be considered authoritative.

Eventually, we came up on the train station (the one I’d traveled from on my trip to southern Thailand many months before) and wandered in from the tracks, onto the platform, and out the front door.  (Exactly the sort of thing you’d never expect to be able to do in the U.S. anymore.)  Jim bailed on us at that point, but the rest of us went across the street to a very good local restaurant, where I had the Khao Soi recommended to me and did not regret the choice. (The choice to eat it, that is.  I should probably make that clear.  Knowing me, the choice to refuse it would have been at least as probable, or at least not one for my readers to dismiss out of hand.)

From there, we walked back along the main thoroughfare towards the Old City until we got back to the river, where I continued on westward and the others headed south to the starting cafe to pick up their bikes/cars/whatever.

A nice shot of the Ping River, from the bridge over it. The water's a bit muddy, but I'd seen people fishing on it, and Tony was quite certain that it was perfectly healthy and not at all polluted. I have no reason to contest that assertion, but, still, I won't go looking for good swimming spots.

A nice shot of the Ping River, from the bridge over it. The water’s a bit muddy, but I’d seen people fishing on it, and Tony was quite certain that it was perfectly healthy and not at all polluted. I have no reason to contest that assertion, but, still, I won’t go looking for good swimming spots.

Just past the river, with the Queen's Rose Garden to my left, and a decorative arch ahead, leading through a popular shopping area towards the Old City. You may remember me describing a parade here last spring.

Just past the river, with the Queen’s Rose Garden to my left, and a decorative arch ahead, leading through a popular shopping area towards the Old City. You may remember me describing a parade here last spring.

The picture above doesn’t really make clear how sunny and hot it was.  Not painfully so, as my recent trip through Tokyo, Taipei, and Kyoto had been, but still quite warm.  And the traffic.  Constant traffic.  Which wasn’t bothering me noise-wise, but the exhaust never let up.

I followed my original route back around the Old City, this time crossing the Loop of Death twice in order to stay on the shadier side of the road.  I seem to be getting pretty good at this, watching the traffic, finding a minor opening, and sprinting across like it was second nature — exactly the sort of thing I’d been aghast watching others do 7 months ago.  I felt a sense of accomplishment that I normally only achieve by fully catching up on my incoming Twitter feed.

As I reached the last kilometer, I was feeling hot, tired, very grateful for the sunblock I’d put on that morning, and kind of sick from car fumes.  But I made it home, showered and rinsed out my technical clothes, lay down to “meditate” for a bit, and was mostly fine thereafter.  I then spent the next 3 days with headaches.

When I was here in the early spring, and was staying in that little box in the Old City, I primarily blamed the ash from the Burning Season for the headaches, though I knew the exhaust was also at fault.  I may have to reverse that and blame the exhaust first.  The headaches weren’t as bad as they had been back then, and I mostly was able to stay balanced and keep them down to a dull ache, but it left me very disinclined to go out and do much.  So I mostly stayed inside, breathed the A/C-filtered air, and watched TV/Youtube.  But, clearly, what ended up being 6 hours of walking around in or near unrestricted car exhaust is not a thing that does me any good at all.  Surprise, surprise.  As much as I like walking, I’m going to have to set limits here, like, “25 minutes each way, on foot or by scooter”.  Maybe I can go longer if the trip leads out of the city, or by less congested roads.  It’s the higher density of city traffic, with huge jams of cars and songthaews and tuk-tuks all belching clouds of the stuff, that does me in after a while.  In truth, it’s probably for the best that I can’t breathe the stuff for hours.  It can’t be good for me, and this firmly discourages me from simply putting up with it.

I did manage to go out for dinner with Damien on Monday.  He’d mentioned in a tweet on Sunday that it would be his birthday, and I sent him a message saying that if he needed a celebrant, to count me in.  He ended up proposing Duke’s, an American-food restaurant in the Maya mall, and so we met that evening at around 6:30.  I’d spent much of the day furiously working on getting the headache down to a manageable level, because I could hardly cancel out on a friend’s birthday dinner nor did I want to be less than ideal company.  Fortunately, I was successful, and we had a very large dinner of burgers and fries and apple pie and ice cream (truly American in its excess), along with the usual excellent conversation.

The Rest Of The Week

There’s really no point in breaking down the rest of the week by day, because it started off slow due to the headaches, and then settled into a more comfortable routine of The Usual.

The philosophy group did schedule a meeting for that Wednesday evening, but I didn’t go.  Aside from my headachey state, the topic just didn’t interest me.  It was something like, “Is Stoicism a valid philosophy for modern life”.  Hello?  Duh!  Are we really meant to be spending time discussing something with so obvious an answer?  This was the problem I had with the group when I was here before: the topics were typically either self-obvious or pointless, and when you did get a worthwhile discussion going, there were so many people that the discussions stayed pretty shallow.  You couldn’t drill deeply into the subject because no one could talk out a point for very long — everyone had to have to their say. I’d rather spend an hour just listening to one person lecture deeply on a subject, than join a dozen people splashing about in the shallows of it. I’m not saying I won’t go to some while I’m here, if the topic sounds interesting.  But it didn’t happen this time.

[In fairness, the group clearly works for some people, and Damien is among them.  I just feel a lot of “been there, done that” in their topics, at the level that they’re discussing them, and it doesn’t do much for me. YMMV.]

So, it was mostly ESO, Twitter, YouTube, blog, reading, etc.  Often oatmeal for breakfast, or lunch, and salad for lunch or dinner, or maybe tinned fish and cheese and crackers. (Burning the candle at both ends, I know, but you only live once.  Oh, wait….)  I’d typically manage to have one meal a day outside of the apartment, often at my favorite breakfast place, the Larder.  I went back to Duke’s once, to take advantage of their great WiFi signal to download shows from YouTube or my TiVo.  (Thanks again to Mark & Jane for hosting that device.)

In fact, my dominant concern — during and after the headache — was the WiFi.  I mentioned this in the last entry, but the hotel/residence building does *not* have good WiFi.  Sometimes it’s fine and I can, for example, stream 720p from YouTube.  Other times, it struggles to play YouTube at 480 without very long buffering pauses, and I can spend 2 hours trying to watch a 50 minute video.  And it’s not just when a bunch of others are online in my area.  Logging into ESO was often painful; meeting with Mom and Sarah online at 7:00am my time, I started at 6:30 and only successfully got in at about 7:01.  I’d log into my account, choose one of my characters, sometimes get as far as the loading screen, and then get kicked out and have to log in again.  It was a nightmarish, seemingly never-ending hassle.

I’d decided to go back to my old favorite breakfast place, Coffee Monster, which had fantastic WiFi and opened (somewhat vaguely) between 6 and 7am, but when I got there I discovered that they had closed, for good.  Very sad.  It was a little out of the way, but not really far.  But that little was far enough (location, location, location); and apparently one of the owners left Chiang Mai, and that was it.  A real shame, I loved that place.

Most other places didn’t open that early, and the couple that did had WiFi issues that made them not any better.  Finally, I broke down and on Saturday (the 26th) I bought a Pocket WiFi device from the local AIS telecom.  It cost me about $50, and another $50 for 10GB of data (they had other data sizes, but I use a lot of data and didn’t want it slowing down to nothing in mid-game).  My real hope, though, was to be able to use the AIS WiFi that you often find in malls and other place, which AIS customer can use for free, and they even have something called AIS Super WiFi that supports up to 650 Mb/s!  Damien’s used that to download whole episodes of Madmen in a couple of minutes.

Alas, my results on that have been mixed.  There are two places near me that are open 24/7 and have an AIS WiFi signal as well as their own WiFi if you buy food.  But one, Tom n Toms Coffee, has a weak AIS signal and their own WiFi isn’t strong enough for ESO (plus they play pop music pretty loudly, which would be a problem for anyone I’m playing with, having to hear it through my mic).  And the other, CAMP, is pretty deserted at 7am and doesn’t even turn on the A/C until 10 (oy!), and the AIS wouldn’t work for me on my gaming laptop until 7:45 (I don’t why not, it worked on my phone and iPad, but there you are).

But the Mobile WiFi device is actually pretty good, and I can play ESO on it pretty reliably, so that’s what I’ve been going with.  Then, I go to CAMP later in the day to download Youtube and TiVo shows on their WiFi and on AIS WiFi.  I’ve never seen the Super WiFi turned on there, but the Clark Kent version is pretty good.  And I’ve walked over to the AIS store in the mall to pick up their Super WiFi signal, and used that to download Mac OS X updates, iOS updates, and other things.  (Though it hasn’t been performing well for me even there; it’s a good signal, but not 100+ Mb/s good.)  Anyway, one way or another, I’m getting it done so, good enough.

As a final note, when I bought the AIS mobile WiFi device, I went all the way to the Central Festival Mall — you can see it marked with a star in the  northeast corner of the map.  (The local AIS store didn’t appear to have the device, though it might have been behind the counter as the CFM store’s turned out to be.)  This mall puts the Maya to shame — it’s massive, and filled with shops and a huge, high end grocery store, and straight-up competitive with anything you’d find in the U.S.  Took a few pictures…

Wait, no, not this. I don't know what kind of creature an Apitizer is, but I'm not eating it.

Wait, no, not this. I don’t know what kind of creature an Apitizer is, but I’m not eating it.

No, not this either. Pretty sure this does not mean to Thais what it would mean in the U.S. Or, maybe it does. What do I know?

No, not this either. Pretty sure this does not mean to Thais what it would mean in the U.S. Or, maybe it does. What do I know?

Several levels, and we're probably seeing a little under a 1/4-1/3 of the horizontal distance here. A Mall Worthy Of The Name.

That’s more like it.  Several levels, and we’re probably seeing a little under a 1/4-1/3 of the horizontal distance here. A Mall Worthy Of The Name.

I went there early enough, between 9 and 10am, that the traffic along the “Superhighway” was light. (It’s the Niagara Falls of Thai highways.)  I ended up staying through lunch, but the best part of the trip was the mid-morning snack I had when I got there.

They heated the oatmeal raisin cookie for me, and it was wonderful.

They heated the oatmeal raisin cookie for me, and it was wonderful.

So, that gets me caught up through last Saturday (the 26th).  I’ll should be able to catch up completely in the next few days — spending time in CAMP, patiently downloading TV shows and software gives me plenty of time to work on the blog.  Everybody wins!

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