The other day, as I reclined in a bamboo hut contemplating the bathers frolicking in the waters of Huay Tung Tao, the sun casting its dying rays across Doi Suthep and a young girl trying to sell me a Doraemon toy, I fell into conversation with a young couple visiting Chiang Mai for their holidays. Having exhausted curious topics like the state of world politics and why Thai tea comes in a bag, something else struck each of us as being a little odd. We had ice cubes in our beer. For the couple, fresh off the ‘plane from the UK, it was odd to be served a glass of amber lager with ice cubes floating in it. This would be an unacceptable state of affairs in any British bar. For me the ice situation was strange because I cannot now imagine enjoying a glass of golden goodness without a couple of frozen cubes bobbing up and down in it. This got me thinking. If I now treat beer in such a way completely foreign to how I was bought up to treat beer, are there other conventions or habits we would never have dreamed of indulging in at home that one cannot help acquiring after living for a few years in this land that smiles?
An obvious one is the bum-gun. To say that the arse-hose revolutionised my existence would of course be a silly exaggeration, but it has certainly improved the whole bathroom experience tremendously. Like the egregious idea of beer without ice, I could never now contemplate reverting to a humble sheet of toilet paper. I would also miss the entertainment. Who needs a newspaper to read in the privy when one can get on with washing one’s feet, or indulging in the fantasy of being James Bond with a water-firing Walther PPK. Nope, it will come as little surprise to anyone that the butt-spray, the king of bathroom hygiene, often tops the list of things most missed when people move back home.
Next up has to be the motorbike. Before Thailand, the motorcycle, in my mind, was simply a rocket on two wheels mentally baffled people climbed onto before becoming organ donors. Now it is almost impossible to imagine life without one. This is not to say that the above description doesn’t still hold up, but that I can no longer imagine doing something crazy like walking to the 7-eleven at the end of the road. That would be madness when there is a perfectly good rocket on two wheels parked outside that will save me costly wear and tear on my flip-flops.
Flip-flops, there’s another one. The wearing of a pair of these flexible sandals in somewhere like the UK would be unthinkable. Not just because of the abysmal climate, but because they are often regarded as one of the worst sorts of sartorial crime. An opinion I would have heartily agreed with a decade ago, but now it is simply unimaginable that I would exchange my rubber thongs for a pair of shoes. And socks are totally out of the question. Granted, a pair of flip-flops is unlikely to last as long as a pair of sensible brogues, but the price tag, and the lack of all that shoe-lace nonsense, does tend to put a smile on one’s face.
And that’s another one — smiling. The Land of Smiles is a clich้ for the very good reason that everybody does it. As a Brit I was taught from a very early age that smiling at a stranger was something only a deranged person would ever contemplate. Try smiling at the person sitting opposite you on the London Underground, for instance, and seeing how long it takes for two burly men in white uniforms to appear with a large net and a straightjacket. The opposite is true here, and there is nothing more likely to give your day a cheery boost than catching the eye of somebody going about their business and exchanging a grin.
At a time when there is a great deal to feel bleak about in the world; where perspectives seem to be shrinking and attitudes are struggling to remain positive, I thank goodness I have been treated to my time in Chiang Mai. It is impossible to have lived here and not had one’s worldview altered for the better even if the broadening of one’s philosophy is a jet of water up the bum or the realisation that life is that bit better without the hassle of socks.
Perhaps you too have had an experience in Chiang Mai that has skewed the way in which you approach life. If so why not click ‘like’ and ‘subscribe’ at the bottom of the page and tell us about it in the comments section. Or send a Twit on Grinder. Or snap some chat on Ooops. Or do that hashtag thing. Or completely forget about it all, go and have a beer — with ice in it — and swap a smile with a real person.