What you absolutely must know about living in Chiang Mai

 | Tue 25 Feb 2014 16:53 ICT

The seasoned expatriate, who hasn’t been living with his head in the clouds, can probably teach the newbie a thing or two about living in Chiang Mai, or Thailand. It’s a learning process, becoming an expat, and often a lesson that can be hard to learn. We grow thick skin, so others won’t have to.

I’ve put this together for new people to Chiang Mai, a small list of things you really should know if you intend to stay here. The topics, or issues, are ones you’ll see talked about on web forums on any given month. I’m not saying I know I’m right, but I think I have a pretty good idea. If you can add to this list, please do, and together we can all help our fellow expats.

Chiang Mai Weather

It can be colder than you think from December through January (this year it was too cold for most people, at around lows of eight degrees Celsius), and then it gets hot, very hot. We have a couple of months of pollution that isn’t getting any better. Buy a face mask, and be prepared for oppressive heat – up to around 40 degrees – in March and April. The rains come and the smog clears up. We all stop complaining, and local government liars stop telling the public that they are doing something about the pollution. The weather is great here, but for two months Chiang Mai resembles Mordor. When it rains you need to know a few things. During the first rains the roads get very slippery, when the oil that has collected mixes with the water. Watch all the bikes sliding around. Don’t become one. You will also get very wet on any given day, but besides September (the rainiest month) the showers tend to happen early morning and early evening, around 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Chiang Mai Driving

Even if you’re new here you are probably already aware that Thailand’s roads are more dangerous than tours of hostile parts of Afghanistan, or putting the bath in the kitchen. Just get it into your head that anything could happen, and people may just pull out in front of you, or that the guy in front is drunk, or mad, or carrying a gun, which he will use to shoot you for an infringement that might seem like nothing to you. Don’t give people the finger, don’t yell, don’t track people, or get your road rage on, it will only lead to your sudden demise. This all sounds very exaggerated. What I’m saying is imagine this might happen, and so just don’t do it. Not all Thai drivers are maniacs, but enough are to encourage you to act sensibly. Just smile, and try and go your own way. Years of repressed anger and lost face might be waiting to smash you into a bloody pulp. When an angry face in a face-country gets impunity behind a screen, things can get very nasty. Also, bikers, wear a helmet. An ER doctor told me those cheap ones are useless. They have to be full face. If not, expect to only lose your face when you crash. For some reason many foreigners seem to believe they are indestructible here. They do things they’d never do at home, as if reality is spongy here. It’s not, it’s hard, and sharp, like it is everywhere. Concrete here hurts just as much as it does back home. I’ve already lost a few friends on the roads. Don’t leave your reason at home, or you’re brains might end up on the street. One more thing, drink driving is real these days. I mean, the police enforce the law. If you get caught, and cannot work your way out of it, expect to spend a night in jail, and pay around 5-10,000 baht in fines.

Marrying prostitutes, having lovers

For one thing, don’t listen to those people that go on about good girls, and bad girls, or good boys, bad boys. It’s not that simple. Try not to generalize, and you’ll find relationships to be complex and interesting, like they are anywhere else. Many men date prostitutes, and marry them. The same rules apply here, as they would back home. Prostitutes might have baggage. Be wary of people who want to marry you after one month. Don’t jump into anything…

NEVER speak pidgin English to your lover. You sound like a complete fool, and all you’re doing is helping your grammar-less other half to speak English badly, or should I say badder. It’s like drip-feeding your diabetic child Coke. Me Tarzan, you Jane? No, she ‘s Thai, and you should know better. Stop it now, and don’t pretend you’ve read Wittgenstein.

Some families want dowries, some want your blood, others want to love and cherish you. There are no rules, you have to test the water. You’ll have to work that bit out, but I’d say if the girl, or boy, you want to marry keeps asking about how much your car was, or how what kind of house your dad lives in, or did you pay for your condo, or can you help with the nephew’s gambling debt (after you’ve know each other 3 weeks) then cash is what he or she is thinking about. Again, same rules apply here as they do back home, abject materialism, is a global thang. Don’t blame it on Thais. But in a developing culture, you might say money is more a pressing matter for the very poor. In a face culture, showing crap to impress your friends is fairly common, and will drive most foreigners wild, especially if they’re paying. Be aware of this when you start dating, don’t be afraid to ask, find out what he or she wants. If you want to date a yaba smoking stripper whose father burnt her with his Krongthips when she was late with his chicken dinner, then expect her to be a little jaded, perhaps even cruel, or cold. You aint gonna change or rescue anyone. Only they can change themselves. Best thing you can do, know each other’s expectations from the start, talk, attempt some understanding, discuss wants, needs, plans, etc. Be honest.

And don’t get married by mistake. I’ve heard this a few times. If you get invited back to someone’s village, for a big party, just make sure you don’t end tying string round people’s arms.

I’ve enjoyed all my relationships here, and I’ve dated rich girls, poor girls, the so-called educated, and the so-called uneducated (these terms really should never apply to reality). Culture might sometimes be nebulous, but it isn’t impenetrable.

Working in Chiang Mai

If you want a job, and don’t want to leave Thailand, and you are not good at anything, there are a few dodgy schools that will employ you (under 200 baht an hour) to throw big fluffy letters at nice kids. A step up from that is TEFL teaching, in which largely over-rated teachers, who swagger around with their venerable, over-priced, hardly helpful CELTAs and DELTAs, talk about TTT and SS and Warm ups and passports, and yet, for some reason their kids don’t learn much.  Teaching is not an art, and it can’t be drilled into you; it’s a social experiment. Know your shit, and know your students, and then work on educating yourself.

You can study TEFL here in Chiang Mai, and be given a work placement as well as. The whole package is available. The good thing about teaching is that you can pretend your job is difficult, which it certainly isn’t. You’ll soon figure out that the only way to really succeed in teaching, or to tolerate the offensive, puerile politics of the job, is to kiss a lot of ass, and I mean a lot…then, as an extra self-promotional tool, continuously bring up non-sequitur issues at teachers’ meetings just so you get some air-time and impress the head. As the heads had to do the same, they will like you for this. So, get qualified, and be prepared to get your mouth filthy. That’s teaching, 101. Expect 30-50,000 a month for TEFL classes (short hours) and local schools. International schools, where teachers say they are real teachers because they paid some money for a certificate that didn’t improve their rancid manner nor help them to teach the subject they care little about any better – they will know what hoops to jump through – pay anywhere from around 55,000 – 100,000 a month. Some schools will tell you you now need a Masters in education, and again, though this doesn’t improve the standard of education, it does raise fees, cost you, and generally makes others’ money. Education is turning into a huge racket, and it all starts with vapid, over-emphasised, largely useless qualifications. As they say in The Wire, “it’s all in the game”, or as Jay-Z says, “on the street, you reap what you sow.” Teachers are becoming more qualified, and less able, caught up in a corrupt system, immersed in back-stabbing and politics, dependent on the success of their over-burdened children.

If you want to work in a less ruthless type of employment you could always try working in a Boiler Room, and Chiang Mai is home to a few. It’s hard to find the ads, but if you hang around Spicy or the Van, look for very drunk, violent, foul-mouthed fools who chuck money about and seem to miraculously function from using only the reptilian part of the brain.

Other work could be something involved with these new generation folk that call themselves ‘digital nomads’…who are mostly SEO types that currently work in an occupation that consists of filling the world with things we don’t need. They are writing the maps for the end of history…but not the one Hegel had in mind. These people themselves have become viral in Chiang Mai this last year, they’re popping up on the streets in their garish gym shoes like annoying ads…ensuring that the average cat spends much of his life swiping virtual stars out of a pitiful sky. They’re not nomads, they’re germs. Lots of work though, and it’s fairly well paid. Go to PunSpace and maybe you can copy some of their stuff. If not, just Google making money online, or SEO, and I’m sure you’ll find something.

My generation

Thais are not always late. That’s another lie people tell. This generation is different. And don’t think, if you’re a man, you must always pay for the date. It’s not true either. And not everyone gets insulted if you accidentally point your feet at them.

Evil in Chiang Mai

Although Thaivisa has some interesting information to offer, most of the people who post on there have the mental constitution of an ape, and are about equal in aggression too. If you do step into this hell-hole of cyber depravity, then make it short. Get what you want, and leave. There’s a coterie of idiots on here who all stand by each other, and they wait for new guys, like snipers, who drink too much. It’s like a cyber ship-of-fools. In real life, they are absurd humans that cannot come out in the daylight hours, and so have taken to living in the skin of their Thaivisa persona. They pontificate on all things, but strangely they would struggle to get through a Tom Clancy novel. Think Napoleon syndrome, with syphilis. Be warned. Enter at your own risk.

Don’t over-Asian

Over-Asian people are mocked, and despised. They eat rice with chop-sticks, and wear Thai laboring outfits, equivalent to Somchai walking around the East-end of London dressed like an Anglo-Saxon warrior, or turning up to a Radiohead gig riding a Penny Farthing and wearing a bowler hat. And you don’t have to pretend to like eating insects, or eat chillis that make you ill, or sit in the Lotus position for so long you cause yourself real damage. Don’t over-Asian, it doesn’t fool anyone.

Don’t be tight

Don’t haggle too hard, and don’t haggle for a McDonalds. You look cheap, and nasty, arguing over 10 baht. Just bloody pay. Thais don’t haggle over a pencil. There are deals to be made, but do it politely, and reasonably, and know the right time.

How much cash do you need?

This is always asked on Thai web forums, and everyone disagrees. It’s like this, you can live happily in very small room, with a bunch of whiskey bottles as friends, on around 15,000 baht a month. But not many foreigners do that. If you want a reasonable life, with fun and frolics, and perhaps a trip away each year, you’ll want around 50,000 baht a month. Some geezers say they need more than 100+,000, but that means you’re spending your cash on quality wines, and condos where the security guards stay awake sometimes.

Learn how to smile and walk way: relax

This is good advice in Thailand. Even if you think you’re right, or you think it was him, not you, who spilled the beer, just learn to walk away. Don’t get angry, or damage someone’s precious face, because it just never ends up going your way. And don’t complain, or shout, as you’ll only make things much worse. Smile, smile, smile, walk away…and if you can do that, yours is the Earth, and everything that’s in it.

Learn how to play things

So you’re in the hospital, and you’ve just had to tell three hot nurses that your penis is covered in warts. And then a little further down the corridor, you have to tell two more nurses…and then, when you tell the doctor, she laughs. Can be a little intimidating as a newbie, but you’ll soon get used to taking yourself less seriously, and learning how to play hospital, or doctors and nurses. One of the reasons we love Thailand is because we can play anything, from politics, to parents.