We have been here a week now in Chiang Mai, getting to know the place better. I have been noticing there are three basic types of foreigners here. Tourists, of course, seem to outnumber all the others as there are such cheap and fast flights here from Bangkok. They are the ones out arguing with songtauw drivers over the rates, skittering across the streets to avoid becoming roadkill and saying things like, "Wow! It is so strange to be someplace where they speak a different language." To some degree, I am still in that boat, though I am gradually becoming more comfortable here. Arguing with a songtauw driver is a bit like arguing with your mom. Forget it. You aren't going to win. Tourists also jump at the chance to rent motorcycles even if they have never sat on one at home. My advice is to leave the motorcycle riding to the professionals.
I see entire Thai families tucked on their bikes, with little ones leaning on the handle bar, another on mom's lap in the back, and groceries somehow magically attached somewhere. They never hesitate in traffic, aren't afraid to ride on the sidewalk or fresh markets or any place else that happens to be relatively flat. Locals find every square centimeter to fill with their bikes. The tourists are the ones constantly looking back and sideways, running at half the speed of traffic, and hesitating when they should be going. Locals never look, never slow down and never stop. Frankly, if I ever do get hit by a motorcycle, it will most likely be from a tourist.
The second group are the ones who read all the articles in the WSJ and Yahoo saying Chiang Mai is the cheapest place in the world to retire. They live in compounds with multiple guards, hire drivers, cooks and any other help they can afford, and stay among fellow expats. They avoid public transportation because they can't speak the language, get impatient with clerks and waiters who can't speak English, and generally act like this is their home country. Some can get quite ugly, treating locals like some sort of vermin. Perhaps they are having a great stay here, however I would prefer to become part of the last group.
These are the ones the British used to refer to as those who have "gone native." They have learned the language, may have married a local, perhaps even had children whom they send to Thai schools, eat the food and know how to ride a motorcycle. They never shop in the "farang" stores and usually order food from roadside shops. Nee is helping me go native.
My school is relatively close to me, however, taking transportation is preferred. We practiced a few ways until we decided the route. Songtaews in Bangkok were charging me 8 baht for a 40 minute ride to the skytrain. Songtaews here charge 20 for a ten minute ride. I like to keep things cheap. She also asked a lady she met at a fresh market how to be sure to only pay the 20 baht standard fee. Then yesterday, we did it and it worked! After a bit of wandering around, we realized that my class is near one of the large markets here, Warorot. The direction I was given previously was that I should just get on a songtaew and, if he turns one way get off, and the other way stay on. If I get off, take another songtaew and so on. Actually, learning just a bit of Thai works along with some songtaew psychology. If you tell them where you want to go, they have a right to charge a higher rate. However, if you ask them if they are going to a particular place, and, if so is the charge still 20 baht, hop on and you are on your way.
To get to a bus going in the right direction, I first have to run across the street like a jackrabbit. I flag down an oncoming bus and lean in and say, "bpai talart Warorot mai?" or are you going to Warorot? If he says, "Mai bpai" or I am not going there, just say "mai pen rai" and move on. Mine shook his head to say, Yes, so then I said, "sow baht na?" or is the price 20 baht? He nodded and I hopped on. I think I surprised him when I spoke Thai. A small victory for me.
Going to the market I realized why, for now, I will avoid getting a motorcycle, though. While sitting in the back, we were stopped and I heard a tire squeal and suddenly a helmeted head of a motorcycle driver was wedged into the lower left corner of the truck. The fellow picked himself up, restarted his bike and went on his way. If he had skipped the helmet, I would have probably seen him crack his head open. The driver didn't speak to him and he didn't speak to the driver. This is definitely a different world.
If the weather is good, I may just walk occasionally, too.
Class begins next week. I can't wait.