Being local
September 29, 2013, 7:01 pm
Filed under: asia, cambodia, culture, food, thailand, travel | Tags: , , , ,

Angkor Wat

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

Recently I had a mental shift . The shift corresponded roughly with the six-month point of my living in Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure if the shift was caused by time or actions. The actions were several people I know coming to visit, as well as strangers asking for advice about the city. With seeming suddenness, I became a local rather than a traveller.

This was in reality a more gradual shift, from my asking people for advice about locations or activities to being asked. Actually that’s not quite true – I still ask people for advice, and people were asking me within my first weeks, to which I’d reply I didn’t know. Now it’s different. Now I know things.

Now I know without looking at a map where I am in relation to the four gates of the walled city. Now I know not to park my motorcycle in a certain quiet lane on Sunday afternoon, as it will be overwhelmed by a market when I return. Now I have a degree of confidence in predicting rain, as opposed to the total bewilderment I felt when monsoon season began.

I still know only scraps of what there is to know about Chiang Mai, about Thailand, about life – but it’s noticeably more than I did before the mental shift. This shift creates a sense of mental space and relaxation that I didn’t have before. It’s letting go of the moment-to-moment switched-on buzz that comes from travelling somewhere new. Relaxing instead into the expectations and assumptions that create a sense of security and homeliness.

The contrast was evident when I visited Cambodia recently. I had an unexpectedly wonderful time there. The picture with this post comes from Angkor Wat, a place worthy of its world heritage status. I was fortunate to have time for a three-day pass to Angkor, giving me the opportunity to visit other sites in the temple complex.

I visited Ta Prohm, made famous by Tomb Raider, which I found to be in fact a friendly and fruit-laden temple, complex enough to be like playing a real video game in the manner of Myst. There was a young Cambodian girl entertaining herself by swinging from a thick vine, who I imaged to be a real young Lara Croft.

Most memorable was the day I awoke before dawn to begin the day meditating alone among sounds of bats and birds inside the heart of Bayon temple. Some people have asked how I organized it. It wasn’t a group – Angkor is vast enough that getting a tuktuk there before dawn ensures it’s simple to find a quiet space to start the day by yourself within the ancient buildings. I was initially on guard with fears about what I would find in the darkness. Once I’d settled in meditation, the sense of oneness and peace I felt with daybreak and birdsong was profound.

I also had an unexpectedly wonderful time in Phnom Penh, thanks to locals who shared their lives and knowledge. Sharing knowledge as a local can make the difference between a newcomer having fantastic experiences, versus mediocre or downright unpleasant ones. I am so grateful to those who shared with me their favourite dishes to eat or places to go out.

Now I’m back in Chiang Mai, happy to give back. Happy to share my knowledge of places and foods with newcomers. Happy to give that which I’ve received. Happy to give knowing that my knowledge is little, but sharing it brings me access to new knowledge and experiences tenfold. Sometimes being open to sharing comes back to me in ways I don’t predict, but the unexpectedness is what makes it so delightful.

For example, some newly-arrived neighbours I’ve become friends with shared news that a fish and chip truck now frequents one of my favourite local bars on weekends around dinnertime. When I arrived in Chiang Mai, that bar served no food, so I would rarely go there until later. Last Friday, I experienced what’s reportedly Thailand’s first mobile fish and chip truck (run by a Thai returned from England) while enjoying a drink at my favourite local bar. This was a delightful change to an established expectation about what happens in my neighbourhood. I know to expect such innovation and cultural fusion in Chiang Mai, but how that manifests I can’t anticipate.

I’m delighting in becoming a local, with different surprises and rewards to being a traveller. Same same, but different.


Sunday morning
March 10, 2013, 12:48 pm
Filed under: asia, food, language, thailand, travel | Tags: ,

Market by the old wall

I spent my first Sunday morning getting a pedicure and perusing a market alongside Chiang Mai’s old city wall.

That might sound like a typical tourist thing to do, but like with most things, I tried to imbue it with more cultural and moral significance.

I was the first customer of the day in a nail salon where several people were working, or at least sitting around in work clothes. I prefer to do this at the start of the day so there are less chemicals from nail polish and remover in the air. Arguably, I should avoid them altogether since I don’t think it’s great that women spend all day in such environments, but it’s a guilty pleasure. Once I was sitting in the window getting my toes done other foreigners started to enquire about their services – appearing busy with a customer is a good way to kickstart more business.

I like going to cheap nail salons when I’m in a foreign city, whether it’s New York or Beijing. Like travelling on buses (but more luxurious), nail salons gives an experience of how local people interact. This is a perk of cheap nail salons over spas, where quiet privacy is the norm. I deliberately chose somewhere with several people sitting around, so that I could immerse myself in Thai conversation.

I don’t expect to understand anything yet (though I did pick up ‘farang’ – ‘foreigner’ – a few times). But it’s good for me to be able to absorb Thai people talking to each other in a laid-back joking way, as opposed to the slower, indulgent way people would speak to me. Because Thai is a tonal language, I’m going to need to listen a lot before I have any chance of getting how the language works – it’s so different to English (or French, Spanish or Italian for that matter. They’re all useless to me here).

I was lucky in that the woman doing my toes spoke enough English that I could ask her to teach me some Thai. I had a free Thai lesson with my pedicure. I maxed out my learning capacity for Sunday morning as she taught me with laughter and gestures (when the pedicure process permitted). She taught me how to say ‘dai’ and ‘mai-dai’ (‘yes, you can’ and ‘no, you can’t) as well as ‘dee’ and ‘mai-dee’ (good and bad). I learnt some phrases such as ‘my name is…’ and ‘what do you call…’, but they’ve not yet cemented themselves in my memory. I know it will take two or three times before I remember them – though I might just recognise if someone is asking me my name now.

After my pedicure/Thai lesson, I went to the market. I avoided the stalls selling hill tribe-inspired handicrafts (like in this picture), because I want to buy such things in places where I can be confident my money is supporting hill tribe communities. Perhaps that market was an okay place to buy such things, but I don’t have enough knowledge yet to know either way.

There was a stall selling food that had a banner saying ‘local’ and ‘organic’ in English. The products had Thai labels only. I couldn’t communicate with the people at the stall besides pointing at things. I bought something that looked like some papadums as a pre-lunch snack. I attempted to communicate that I didn’t need a plastic bag, which not surprisingly they didn’t understand, so I took my snack in two layers of plastic, feeling eco-guilt.

Walking from the market to where I’m staying I pierced the plastic and started eating a papadum-like object. It tasted like what fish food smells like. It had a similar texture. I ate half of one, and then wondered if in fact it was fish food. What if I had bought and was eating pet food?

My pedicure/Thai lesson was an excellent start to the day. My market experience didn’t go quite to plan. I’ve left the papadum-like objects in their packet to ask someone who speaks Thai what the label says. I returned to my room and to get the fishfood taste out of my mouth I drank what was labelled as 100% pomegranate juice, which I bought from a minimart yesterday. It tasted like lollies. While that label included English, I’m skeptical of its veracity.

Pedicure/Thai lesson: dee.

Using labels to make good purchasing decisions: mai-dai.