As a journalist, you’re trained to observe as much as possible in life, and it certainly didn’t take this scribe very long to realise that Chiang Mai stands second to nowhere in the world as a city with a distinctively quirky side to it.
Take one recent night for example. Bored of sitting around the room I call home, I wondered out into the still steamy hot night in search of an outside café/bar to relax at, have a pint of my favourite refreshment and watch life go by, Chiang Mai style.
I found myself drifting around the Tha Pae Gate, an area of the old city where there is definitely not a scarcity of bars/cafés to choose from. After only a few minutes, I found a small cozy place across from the moat, sat down on an outside table and ordered a cold one.
Just as I was about to take my first sip, a very loud shrill could be heard nearby. It was definitely of the female variety. Everyone around the bar looked around with urgency and curiosity.
“She probably saw a cockroach,” said a patron sitting at a nearby table.
Minutes later, the girl who had screamed walked by.
“It was a rat,” she said. “I saw a rat run by in front of me and it freaked me out.”
“Well he won’t kill you,” guffawed the patron who had commented about the cockroach, looking at her almost irritatingly. With that she was on her way, and right then and there it became apparent what a different attitude on life Chiang Mai residents really have.
There are rats around Tha Pae Gate and much of the old city – huge ones in fact. I once saw one so big the cat that was chasing it looked kind of scared. Walk around the area after dark and it won’t take longer than a minute to see some kind of movement if your eyes are pointed downward.
I’ve been told the main reasons for the abundance of rodents are threefold: The attractive smells emanating from all the outdoor cooking vendors in the area, open sewers and the fact people put their garbage outside right after dark and it’s sometimes only collected hours later.
But every time I bring up the subject of rats with locals or expats who have been living here for an extended period of time, the reaction I get ranges from humdrum to no big deal.
“Yes there are rats in the old city,” they say. “In fact there are rats all over Chiang Mai. But there’s not much we can do about it. Anyway it’s not that big of a deal. Life goes on.”
Not that big of a deal? Didn’t the Bubonic Plague start as a result of fleas from rats jumping onto humans and infecting them?
So I finished my beer or three and walked home hoping I would not meet any more scurrying rodents along the way. Next morning I boarded a green songtaew as I do every day in order to head to work.
The green songtaew. Now that is also a great example of quirkiness Chiang Mai style.
For those of you not familiar with the green songtaew, it looks the same as the red one but unlike the latter which roams around town aimlessly looking for passengers, it runs on a designated route, during which time passengers can flag it down anywhere and hop on and hop off anytime. The price is very cheap, about 15 baht, maybe 20 if you’re going a longer way.
It’s a good thing the price is so cheap, because there is nothing ordinary about riding the green songtaew.
It’s sometimes so filled with passengers one is forced sit on a little stool between the side benches. Some who are crazy enough hop on to the back of the truck and ride shotgun holding on to bars on the back. People sometimes flag one down, leave bags filled with products such as textiles or food lying on the floor and then walk away, knowing someone at the other end of the line will flag down the songtaew and pick up the goods.
Sometimes, you can find yourself waiting 45 minutes on the side of a dusty road under a beating northern Thailand sun waiting for one to flag down and just as you sense a feeling of relief that one is approaching it will zip right by you despite your waving hand. To add insult to injury, the people inside the songtaew can sometimes be seen giggling as you stand there watching your ride go by in total frustration.
The green songtaew is not a limousine. It’s not even a tuk tuk. It’s hot, dusty, and downright frustrating when you’re stuck in traffic for 30 minutes, breathing in the pollution and perspiring like a geyser.
But it’s part of the Chiang Mai fabric. It is Chiang Mai.
Like the rats that have taken up occupancy and seem to be flourishing throughout our city, the green songtaew is part of everyday life.
Neither will kill you as the patron who sat next to me at the bar so succinctly said. But both will serve to remind you how different and quirky our wonderful city of Chiang Mai really is.