Return to Chiang Mai

I’ve got two choices here: I can write my Sapporo wrap-up, or write about my Chiang Mai arrival.  I don’t think both will fit in one post, so I’m going to write about CM, in the interest of trying to stay current, and try to get in the Sapporo wrap-up later.  Writing up CM within a week of my arrival will hopefully set the pattern for my upcoming blog posts, and I’ll stay current from here out.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!  Well, we can dream, can’t we?

Thursday, September 17th

I had a pretty straightforward departure from Sapporo, other than waking up a bit headachey and having to try to get that under control during the ensuing day, which I was pretty successful at.  But the couple of days before and after my trip were like that, as my subconscious kicked up different varieties of unhappiness about leaving Sapporo and going to CM. I worked through them and got over it, but flight day was very nearly miserable, and I’m glad to have been able to keep it under control.

Fortunately, in some respects, my flight was at 2:15 pm, so I had plenty of prep time.  The downside, of course, was that it was scheduled to arrive late, at about 10:50pm CM time, which if everything went smoothly would mean getting to bed around midnight local time, or 2am Japan time.  Good thing I’m a night person, right?  So I was able to have a leisurely morning: I played ESO a little bit and said good-bye to my Airbnb host Kenta on his way out to work — we’d had dinner together the night before, split between conversation and watching baseball on the restaurant TV.  The Nippon-Ham Fighters have been having a good season, and it looks like they’ll make it into the playoffs, but I don’t know if I’ll ever learn how it ended.  They’d added another American to the team since I attended their game in June, but I don’t recall his name.  (He looked a lot like the American I’d seen, Brandon Laird, but American baseball players all look alike to me and it definitely wasn’t the same guy ’cause he had a different name on his jersey. I just can’t remember what that name was.)

Anyway, I had a bit of brunch — eating the last of my food except for some traveling snacks — finished packing, shouldered my massive pack, and headed out at about 10:45.  Walked to the subway, took the subway to Sapporo Station, and miraculously caught the train to the airport with like seconds to spare.  I’m astounded that I made it.  The subway stop is a few minutes walk from the train entrance; Google’s route claimed an 8 minute transition from subway to train, but it’s virtually impossible to make that change, given that you have to work out the ticket machine, buy the correct ticket, find the track, and get on.  I walk pretty quickly normally, but I didn’t for a second think I could do it.  I left the ticket machine about 40 seconds ahead of the scheduled departure, nearly ran to the track, charged up the stairs, and got onto the crowded train just seconds before the doors closed.  As far as I could tell, the seats were all claimed, so I stood in the car’s entryway for the duration of the trip with 4 or 5 Japanese people and not nearly enough A/C.  I’d avoided sweating up to that point, but I was a bit soaked by the time we arrived 40 minutes later.

And then, as I tried to leave the station, the ticket gate stopped me, claiming that I didn’t have enough money on the ticket.  This was extra aggravating: I thought I’d picked the right destination on the ticket machine, and I’d used up nearly all of my Japanese coins buying it which was exactly what I’d hoped to do.  I ended up having to break another 1,000 Yen note to add 230 Yen to the ticket (about $2), and then I had *nearly* 1,000 Yen in change.  Currency exchange places never seem to do coins, so now I have them forever.  Hopefully, my niblings will take some of them off my hands as souvenirs.  <grumble, grumble>

I made my way down a surprisingly long walk to the Korea Airline ticket desk and checked in.  Just out of curiousity, I asked how much it would cost to upgrade from economy to business class, and the agent had no idea.  She had to go ask someone else, and came back to tell me that the other person would get back to us in 5 minutes.  I didn’t feel like waiting, so I said never mind, but then the other person did appear a couple of minutes later with a figure of something like 85,000 Yen, over $700!  My agent explained that to me, with a “You probably don’t want this” tone to her voice, and I laughed and said, nope, that was too expensive for me.

I made my way to security, and resignedly performed the whole “pull out the laptops” business.  Then, after the x-ray, they wanted to basically pull everything electronic out of that backpack and run it through in trays.  I’ve long ago stopped caring, so sure, whatever.  It’s not like I don’t have to take everything out to repack it anyway, so no harm done.  And they were *super* nice about it, the opposite end of the spectrum from TSA agents.  It was almost a pleasure to have my belongings rifled through by them.

After I’d reconstituted my pack, I made my way to the gate, picked up some sports drink water thing, and started eating my travel snacks.  I was pretty sure Korean Air would feed me — Asian airlines still give you proper service, unlike the “no frills” US airlines — but my oatmeal brunch was not going to keep me going until 3-ish.  Plus, being headachey makes me hungry, don’t ask me why.  I think I’m instinctively seeking comfort and endorphins.  Mmmmmm, yummy endorphins!  Kenta had given me chopsticks and tea crackers as a parting gift, so I started on the crackers.

Kenta's Crackers: another lesson in impermanence, because they were *super* yummy and I shall never have them again. :-(

Kenta’s Green Tea Crackers: another lesson in impermanence, because they were *super* yummy and I shall never have them again. 🙁

As usual, I was a bit concerned about being at the front of my boarding group, so that I’d have room for my massive backpack in the overhead (not a euphemism), but I looked at my boarding pass and could see no sign of a group number.  So when I noticed a few people lining up in front of the gate, I got behind them and was one of the first dozen people on the plane.  Which gave me plenty of time to process my surprise when I found my seat in row 10 looked like this:

Were all the seats this blurry, or was it just mine? I think it was a security feature.

Were all the seats this blurry, or was it just mine? I think it was a security feature.

Ok, that photo’s a bit out of focus, but it was taken very quickly because I hate being obvious taking a picture of my fancy airplane seat like I’m a yokel.  “Looky here, Betty Sue! They got one of tham thar fancy yiny-yangy cup holder thingies. Lord and tarnation!”

Anyway, my point is that I seem to have been assigned a business class seat, shaped like a little pod with some of tham thar fancy seat controls and whatnot.  (The overheads, of course, had plenty of room for my backpack.)  I’m not sure how this happened, but the business section was only around 1/2-full, and I suspect that I got on so well with the ticket lady that she gave me a free class bump for that leg.  Which was pretty awesome of her, and I wish I could thank her.  The best I can do is say that I really like Korean Airlines.  Their service was great, their food was yummy, they had real utensils (not the plastic nonsense that American airlines give you now), and this was true on both legs of the flight including the second leg when I was in regular economy.  So, choose them for all your Asian flying needs! (sp)

I arrived in Seoul on schedule, and then had to go through yet another full security unpack/pack, even though I was just changing from one Korean Airline plane to another!  This isn’t the first time I’ve had to do that for a simple transfer: Beijing was the same deal.  Seriously, folks, you know I had to go through a prior security round to get onto my arriving flight, do you really need to repeat it when I never leave the airport? When I never even leave the airline?  I mean, maybe you don’t trust the International Airport Of Mozambique to screen properly, but surely you could organize things so that airlines you trust (Korean, Japan, etc) can route passengers more easily.  If my plane had been late and I’d been in a rush to catch the next one, that full unpack/pack would have killed it.  (And they pulled everything out yet again; also super friendly about it, but come on!)

Well, thankfully, I wasn’t in a huge rush.  I had a couple of hours between flights, hung out in the airport comfortably enough, and boarded about 15 minutes late for the Chiang Mai flight (again, at the front of the boarding line).  I’m not sure what the delay was for, but we were supposed to arrive in CM at 10:50 pm and even with the delay we got there at about 10:35, so, again, Korean Airlines for the win!  The flight was lightly booked, and I don’t think economy class was more than 1/3 full — not in the front section anyway.  (Does a light load make for a faster flight?  I know you’d burn less fuel….)  I didn’t have seat neighbors, and I leaned against the window and managed to doze for at least a few minutes during the flight, and that was a nice change of pace for me that made my arrival rather more pleasant than it might have been otherwise.  That, and the lovely dinner.  Immigration was a bit crowded, even at that hour, but I was in a short line that moved fairly quickly, and then simply walked through customs check via the “Nothing To Declare” aisle, converted my Yen bills to Thai baht (added to the baht I still had from my prior visit), requested a taxi from the taxi people, had a quick taxi ride through the rain, and was soon at my apartment at the Bliss, and in bed by just after midnight local time.

(I have to say, it’s nice to have done this international travel thing enough times now to be comfortable doing it.  I’m getting more relaxed and casual about it with every trip.  By 2017, I’ll just have me and my luggage loaded on to a traveling bed, sleep through the flight, and wake up when they pour me off the bed and into my hotel room.)

The Bliss was a place my friend Damien had suggested as a possibility, when I was exchanging e-mails with him a couple of months ago.  It’s an 8 story hotel/residence in that upscale, central, Nimmanhaemin area that I stayed in last time, maybe a block away from the Maya mall and very conveniently located.  The rates on their website were higher than I’d have wanted, but he said to e-mail them and they’d give me a better monthly rate and they did, charging 17,000 baht ($470) for the month (i.e., under $16/night).  This is the low season in Chiang Mai, supposedly monsoon season and very wet, although that stopped almost immediately after I arrived.  Of course.  Being the low season, I noticed that there were more places available and the rates were lower, which gave me some pretty decent options.  I went through a couple of odd rounds of home-hunting when I was prepping for this trip.  There was a really nice place on Airbnb that emphasized top-notch internet, but had showed up as booked for a week in my 2nd month here, so I applied to it for month 1 and to a different Airbnb place for month 2.  Then the first place declined my request — it turned out, the owner was going to be renting the place to someone for a year, and hadn’t updated the Airbnb listing yet.  (I was very bummed.)  So I needed a new month 1 place, and settled on The Bliss.

If you look at the pictures for the Executive Suite, you’ll see the the basic idea of the rooms, except my actual room was laid out a little differently, has a balcony, and the pictures are about 30% nicer than the reality.

Standing in the 2 foot entry hall from the door, most of the 1-bedroom place is before us. Kitchenette to the left -- more of a wet bar, really, but with a decent fridge, a microwave, and a portable hot plate/grill out of sight to the left. To the right, the bedroom and, out of view to the right, the bathroom.

Standing in the 2 foot entry hall from the door, most of the 1-bedroom place is before us. Kitchenette to the left — more of a wet bar, really, but with a decent fridge, a microwave, and a portable hot plate/grill out of sight to the left. To the right, the bedroom and, out of view to the right, the bathroom.

The place has weird gaps in its functionality.  The wardrobe has no hangers.  The kitchenette had a couple of plates and bowls and teacups and forks/spoons, but no knives.  No large bowls for salad. And one banged up skillet for the hot plate.  I went out the next day and bought another bowl for oatmeal, a pot that could double as a larger salad bowl, a kitchen knife for chopping salad stuff, and a glass container for water, which I’m boiling in the electric kettle first.  (It doesn’t taste as good as bottled water, but it’s sterile and way more environmentally friendly.)  The electric kettle is especially odd, because it has this weird triangular plug that doesn’t fit any of the sockets.  Thankfully, I have a universal plug adapter, but why is this here when it’s useless on its own?  Maybe a prior tenant bought it, used their own adapter, and then left the kettle?  Who knows?

The bathroom is fine, but the hot water in the shower cycles hotter and colder no matter what temperature you adjust it to.  You’re basically setting the range it will cycle around, and if you manage to set it just right it cycles between very nearly too cold to very nearly too hot.  The decor is an almost-matching set of black and chrome furniture and traditional Thai wood, and the walls are bare — as if someone had the idea of a kind of decor, but stopped fleshing it out once they’d laid out the basic concept.

The view from the balcony, though, is terrific:

A legitimately excellent view of Doi Suthep, from my balcony.

A legitimately excellent view of Doi Suthep, from my balcony.

Sadly, the WiFi is painful.  It’s sometimes good enough to stream 740p video from Youtube, but then sometimes it strains to deliver 480 (the bare minimum I can stand watching almost anything).   I can play ESO fairly well, off and on, except that it kicks me out occasionally, and sometimes I have to try 1/2-a-dozen times to log in, and the lag can get pretty bad sometimes.  Super annoying.  I’ve been tempted to buy a mobile WiFi hotspot, but I don’t think the cellular speeds are that great here, and they have data caps.  If I buy one and buy service from AIS (a local phone/data company), I can use some of their local WiFi networks (like at a shared workspace/cafe in the mall) and get free access to “Super WiFi” that gives me up to 650 Mbps!  Damien recommended this (he has AIS service for his smartphone) and said he was downloading episodes of Madmen in minutes over that connection.  Very tempting, except I have to be in that workspace (or similar ones) to use it. And I’d have to buy a mobile WiFi device that I might only use for 2 months and might not work anywhere else that I go, which would be a huge waste.  I’m more inclined to suffer through this month, hope the month 2 place will be better, and rely on internet cafes when I need higher speed service.  I was in an American restaurant Monday called Duke’s — I know, right? — that was getting 25 Mbps, and downloaded a couple of shows onto my iPad while I was eating there.  So I may be visiting Duke’s more often — like every time I need a software update.

Anyway, my first couple of days here were kind of painful, and I was really regretting choosing The Bliss and really missing Sapporo.  But I’ve settled in a bit now, bought some extra kitchen gear, and the place seems almost livable so I’m rather cheerier about it than I was at the start.  And even in those first couple of days I was glad that I’d done it, because, while I’d have really enjoyed staying in Sapporo, I think I needed the change.  My point in this whole traveling thing isn’t to find a place I like and settle into a rut there.  It’s to experience different places and see more of the world.  Can’t do that just sticking to places I like.  Might come back to them later, mind you, but not just yet.

Friday, September 18th

I woke up at around 5:45 am local time, a bit tired after only 5-1/2 hours sleep, and a bit headachey, but not too bad.  The room didn’t have shampoo or soap, but I keep little travel-size bits of those for emergencies so no problem.  I remembered the Larder was nearby and opened (I thought) at 8:00, so I got ready, snacked a little bit, checked e-mail, and left at closer to 8:20 in light off-and-on rain and a very pleasantly moderate temperature.  I ended up taking a more circuitous route, got there at 8:40, and settled down outdoors at a small table kept barely out of the rain by the building’s overhang.  It was perfect.  And my iPad still remembered the WiFi code!

They brought me a menu, but I couldn’t remember if they came to your table for your order or not, so I went inside to order and — judging by the looks I got — I could tell that I wasn’t meant to do that.  Oh well, too late!  I ordered a ham and cheese croissant that remembered being especially nice, and handed them my thermos mug for coffee.  The Larder was one of the few places that knew what to do with my thermos mug, and I loved them for it.  Of course, when they came with it, I made the mistake of asking for cream.  The waitress look confused, and I had to repeat myself, and then she went in to ask about it while I sat there slowly remembering that Thailand doesn’t understand cream in coffee, doesn’t call milk or half-and-half cream, and was likely to try to give me a giant ice cream scoop of actual thick cream.  I flagged her down again and said “Never mind, I don’t need it”.  She told me that someone was trying to get it for me and I said, no, that was all right, I was good.  And I was.  Thailand had taught me to be grateful for whatever coffee I could get, and I was remembering the lessons.  As well as other lessons about how dining works here.

After 90 minutes or so I went back to the hotel room, meditated for a bit and started to resolve more of the “Why am I here?!” upset that I mentioned earlier (which helped with the headacheyness).  Then I went to pick up my motorbike.  I’d sent Robin, the British husband of the Vanessa of Vanessa’s Motorbike Hire, an e-mail saying that I was returning and could come by on Friday.  (You may remember these folks from my blog last February.  Or you may not. It matters little either way, so I shall say no more about the subject of your memory and simply return to the narrative at hand without any further delay.)  It was raining pretty hard, but the place was maybe a 15 minute walk, and I had an umbrella, so no big deal.  This was the first time I’d gotten a chance to talk very much to Vanessa herself, and she was delightful.  She and Robin have a daughter in 2nd grade (according to her class schedule on the wall).  What I didn’t know before was that Vanessa already had a grown-up son, who is currently in the US, returning to Thailand in the next couple of months.  That makes her rather older than she looks (I should just add at least 5 years to the age of any non-smoking Asians I meet, that’s about how it’s working out).  He must be from a previous marriage, because Robin definitely isn’t old enough for that.  She had pictures of him on the wall — good looking kid.  She took my info, set me up with a bike, even came up with a more protective helmet that the usual ones — it was roughly similar to the one I’d bought last February and left in Koh Samui, which was great since it means I don’t have to buy another one.  Alas, the motorbike’s under-seat storage was too small for the larger helmet, but she said I could come back in a few days and trade bikes for one that would hold the helmet.  (Much preferable to carrying the helmet around with me wherever I go.)  And when I asked what people did about riding in the rain, she came up with a cheap, thin, plastic raincoat that would fit over my backpack, and waved off my paying for it.

I rode the bike back — and had to make a huge detour to put gas in it, because it had next to nothing in the tank.  (A nuisance, but it simplifies the process of returning it since I won’t have to gas it up.)  It had also had some trouble starting and staying running, when Vanessa showed it to me.  But that seemed like a battery charge problem that would clear up once I was riding it.  I confused the gas station attendant lady by being unable to tell her how many baht-worth of gas to put in — I had no memory of how much those tanks hold.  I thought maybe she could just fill it up, but no.  Finally I said “500 baht”.  She filled it with 50.0 baht, and stopped, and then it got more confusing, because I didn’t know why she stopped — it didn’t look full — but I tried handing her 50 baht and she didn’t seem to think we were done.  I tried handing her 500 — maybe I was reading the display wrong? — but she didn’t take it.  Then she called another attendant and with enough hand waving I managed to communicate, “I’ve given her 50 baht, is that right?”  He indicated that we were good, so I put my money away, settled my raincoat, got on the bike, and rode off.  It was all very awkward.  But I got 1/3 of a tank out of it, so now I know to let it get under 1/3 and then ask for 100 baht of gas.  I think that’s what I used to do before, too.

After the gasoline, I rode home and had something lunch-like from my travel food including my very last Clif Bar from the U.S., in celebration of my return to where I started.

Dearest Clif Bar, we have long been the closest of traveling companions but it is now time for you to fulfill your destiny. I shall miss you, but know that some part of you shall forever be a part of me. Fare well.

Dearest Clif Bar, we have long been the closest of traveling companions but it is now time for you to fulfill your destiny. I shall miss you, but know that some part of you shall forever be a part of me. Fare well.

I meditated some more, logged into ESO for the first time (and started to see the problems I was going to have with it), and then went to meet Damien for tea at 4:00 and Rustic and Blue, another favorite place from my prior life here.  Damien hadn’t been there before, so we met for tea and ended up having… well, I guess it was dinner for me.  I don’t know what it was for Damien, he’s a bit more of a night owl.  But we had really excellent conversation, walked over to a coffee place called Tom N Toms Coffee across from the Maya after Rustic started to close at 6:00, and then walked over to the Maya where Damien headed off to a skype call (via his favorite place, the workspace/cafe that has the great WiFi) and I went to pick up some basic groceries at the Rimping store in the basement.  Rimping is basically the Whole Foods of Chiang Mai, and has several stores around the city with lots of good food, organic groceries, locally made cheese, and even American beer and sake.  Not super-cheap sake but those days are, alas, behind me.  🙁

I walked home from there, rejoiced in a successful first day, and probably got to bed around 9:00.

Saturday, September 19th

Most of the day was pretty uneventful.  I actually got a full night’s sleep, which was awesome, and woke up at around 6:30!  Must have been tired.  I ate at the Larder again, this time showing up at 8:00, learning that it didn’t open until 8:30, wandering around being hungry, and coming back in time to be allowed in slightly early, and discovering that the patio is a lot warmer on sunny days, especially when drinking hot coffee and even when not in the sun.  Science!

Afterwards, I puttered and meditated and ESOed and went back to the Maya Mall to see about that cellular data plan that Damien had mentioned, but they had a rock band in the mall lobby, playing so loudly that there would be no way I could talk to the sales clerks.  And when the music died down, the store was full and I wasn’t willing to stand about forever while Thai people were served first.  (Thai clerks do tend to pick them first, because dealing with foreigners is a pain.  Which is true.)

Damien suggested dinner at a Mexican place about 15 minutes walk away, so we met at 7:30, had more excellent conversation, and I had a beef and cheese quesadilla that was unexpectedly good.  Yes, unexpectedly.  I’ve never much cared for Mexican food — a side effect, I think, of growing up in San Antonio, Texas.  And one could not reasonably expect Thailand to provide good examples of the style.  But this was quite good!  The beer I ordered with it, a Thai beer called “Chang”, was a light beer on the order of Corona and just as good.  (For those who have no reference point for that statement, think “Diluted goat’s piss.”  Not that I would know for sure.)

We left at around 10, and I got to bed by 10:45. Earlier might have been better, as I had my first walking tour of Chiang Mai the next morning, but it was good enough.

Ok, I’m not fully caught up yet, but that’s fine.  After the tour, my week slowed down rather a lot, for reasons, so I can get the next installment in soon and catch up properly in short order.  Don’t look at me like that.  I’ll do it this time, for sure!


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