It’s hard to talk about weeks of experiences without resorting to sweeping generalizations … so, I’m just going to go ahead and do it. Living in Chiang Mai for a month was both amazing and disappointing.
According to The Internet, Chiang Mai is the holy grail of places to live in Asia, possessing that rare combination of a low cost of living and a high quality of life. I initially decided to spend so much time in the city because I wanted to give myself the opportunity to get to know the “real” Thailand.
When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, my friend and I dropped off our bags at our guesthouse and hurried into the night, excitedly talking over each other as we set off to explore the city.
Our conversation slowed as we started to look around, peeking into several restaurants and bars.We walked for a few moments in silence, our excitement brought down to a simmer.
“Hey Marie …”
“Um … so, is it just me or is-”
“Everybody white …”
“Where are we?”
Where we stayed the first week, in the walled “old city,” was basically a Thai-themed amusement park for tourists. The bars blare Bob Marley and serve cocktails in buckets. Every street is lined with posters for zipline tours, elephant parks, cooking classes, and whitewater rafting.
There were also plenty of shops catering to the New Age-inclined expats, rendering some streets reminiscent of an aisle in Whole Foods. There are enough vegan restaurants/gluten-free bakeries/yoga studios/Reiki classes to rival the trendiest of U.S. neighborhoods.
I wasn’t sure whether I’d discovered the perfect American city in Thailand or had just made a giant mistake.
Much to my relief, after moving into my apartment, I found actual Thai people living Thai lives beyond the walls of the old city. And when I got glimpses into their culture, my experiences were almost all positive.
I have never felt more safe or more comfortable in any place overseas. I can’t fathom how I was ever nervous about coming here. Song Tao drivers (the Thai version of buses) would wait with smiles as I attempted to sound out street names or resort to googling pictures of the place I want to go. I asked my driver if he ever got annoyed with all the Westerners. He shook his head, smiled, and rubbed his fingers together to symbolize money. They seem as happy to have us as we are to be there.
Thai street food is just as fantastic as the Thai people cooking it. Most meals, I would try to eat at the open-air night markets. Each vendor specializes in a certain kind of absurdly delicious soup, stir-fry, or grilled meat. A single dish is almost always between 20 and 40 baht. That’s a dollar for a plate of green curry fried rice, or pad thai, or an entire mango covered in coconut milk served over sweet sticky rice.
I met a few people one night as I attempted to avoid dying from particularly spicy tom yum soup. I was breathing hard, fanning my mouth after each bite – but finding it too delicious to stop. The three or four people sitting at the table with me each took turns smiling and asking “Hot?” To which I replied hoarsely with sweat beading on my forehead “oh my god. so hot. but soooo good..” and they would laugh, nod their heads, and then take a long, easy drink from their own bowls.
But no matter how much I enjoyed my glimpses into the city and the people living there, I never quite felt like I was in another country. I think my inability to speak Thai definitely contributed to that disconnection. Being truly terrible at foreign languages, I managed to retain only two words: “Kopkunka” which means thank you and “Sawadeeka” which means hello. But I would constantly mix these up, greeting shopkeepers with “Thank you!,” or saying “Hello!” after my waiter brought my bowl of soup.
To compensate for this, I became excellent at charades and stood in markets flapping my arms like chicken or waddling around like a duck in an attempt to procure a particular dish. While my methods were effective in the utilitarian sense, they didn’t exactly pave the way for any intimate new Thai friendships to form.
But, even language aside, I think my real disappointment with my experience in Chiang Mai stemmed from the fact that it was just too easy for me to reach for the comforts of home. Even outside of the old city, if I was craving a burger or sushi or chicken tikka masala, it was all less than a block away – practically anything I wanted from the U.S. I could get in Chiang Mai.
And, as I was a tourist, I found myself wanting to take part in all those touristy activities in the old city. I signed up for yoga classes, painting classes, went rock climbing, and fed elephants. It was fun and indulgent and I had a great time.
But doing all those things meant I didn’t spend the past month living like a Thai person, I spent it living like an expat.
Chiang Mai is the easy, comfortable, cheap city it’s touted to be. If you’re looking for a higher quality of life without spending much money then definitely come here. If you’re looking to do awesome activities until you can’t see straight, then definitely come here. But, If you’re looking to experience an authentically different way of life, then I’m not sure. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist. This is very much a Thai city. But I couldn’t resist the Western/tourist indulgences that were so readily accessible. As a result, sometimes I barely felt I was in a different place at all.
So I don’t know if I had an “authentic experience.” Maybe Thailand is a blend of East and West and Tourist? Maybe that’s just Chiang Mai? Maybe I just did it all wrong.
Still, sitting in a coffeeshop where the baristas trained in San Francisco, and the Thai girls are wearing Converses, drinking iced lattes, and singing along with Rihanna on the radio, I’m not sure I know what “real Thailand” even means.