Forced Recap: Chiang Mai 2014


Instead of being reminded by my regrets, I should be reminding myself by the way I wish to remember. It has been over two months since myself and the rest of my clan returned from our two month stint in Thailand. When we were there and after we returned we were sure that it was perhaps the best time we have spent together as a family. We gained a lot of confidence in ourselves as parents, learned a lot about our young daughter, and at the same time had a great time constantly exploring Chiang Mai. Up until the past week or two it has been almost a distant figment of my memory, and on most days it barely registers as something that we believe has marked our lives forever.

Granted when we left we knew that we had stayed our welcome and had to depart to the normality of home, work, bills, and of course Yeongtong. We did probably spend too much money, and believe it or not two months of sitting around not working can in fact get a little boring, even when you’re in Thailand. Of course we occupied ourselves but after Herself’s friend who came to visit during the month of February we saw the last few weeks as a wind down period before we headed back to Korea. And then disaster kicked in.

This is Chiang Mai

It was a disaster averted I can confidently assert now, but at the time it was my biggest challenge travelling anywhere. +1, our little angel, broke out in a really high fever. We treated her as best we knew, firstly with some paracetamol based medicine, then when a warm bath, and she seemed to be ok. However, later in the day her temperature sky-rocketed again, so we did the same but this time as we bathed her she turned blue and started shivering so much that she was practically shaking from left to right. We quickly threw some things in a bag and went to the Chiang Mai Ram hospital, which was fortunately nearby. +1 was diagnosed with pneumonia and was quickly admitted and then treated. Thanfully after a few days she was discharged along with a big box full of antibiotics to ensure the infection stayed away, and in case in her temperature rose again. It is probably this which shook us so much that allowed us to want to return home to Korea as quickly as we hoped. It was a scary moment, no doubt, but the fortunate no brainer of investing in travel insurance beforehand allowed us in the end to only worry about our child’s health, and not on the further widening of our travel purse strings.

Yet for that moment, which we all recovered from, we still turn to each other and kind of ask ourselves, ‘what about Thailand?’

The Three Amigos

Staying in Chiang Mai together for a long period was something that myself and Herself had promised ourselves for years. Ever since we first were seeing each other and rendezvoused with a charge and jump into each others arms after the last flight from Bangkok touched down in Chiang Mai on day in mid-September, 2006. Herself knew Chiang Mai well and looks back on it fondly. She spent three months learning traditional Thai massage there the winter before. Her memories were still fresh and her enthusiasm to show her stomping grounds was fervent. We came back to Chiang Mai in 2012 briefly on a quick visit to Thailand and again had a blast (read about those adventures-ish here), although we skipped up to Pai and then down to Koh Chang as well to give out trip some needed variety. This time we spent the entire two months in Chiang Mai.

Perhaps though we are doing the reflecting thing wrong. We came back with huge suitcases after one of those awful night time flights which give you about four hours sleep and an early morning arrival in Seoul. This would possibly be easier if we weren’t hauling around our toddler who, as is always the case in these situations, is on a much different sleep pattern to the encumbered parents. We dumped our bags on arrival, pulled a few needed things out, then shoved the suitcases into the spare room and didn’t look back at them for another month at least. I went back to work the following Monday, while Herself struggled to fall back into the routine. Yes, routine, the death song of any wild aspiration. It was cold, the air was crappy, we needed to go to Homeplus, and we really looked forward to getting out to the east coast as soon as possible. At least we had a car though.

Change

Many people use their holiday pictures to refresh their memories, and I suppose we could have done this. I can’t really, as I’ve uploaded them all to my ageing laptop which is now in my office in work. Constantly shutting down as it over-heats, I can’t even contemplate how or when I’ll get the chance to comb through the 30 or 40 gigabytes currently stored on it. I want to. I need to. In fact, we need to. It’s a classic case of information overload, taking so many pictures that you completely forget them. It’s not enough to say that I really enjoyed learning how I could use my camera, it’s time I actually pulled out all those images and did something special with them, other than plaster my flickr page with albums from markets, which is about the height of what I’ve done so far.

On my bookshelf next to my computer which I write from now there are six photographs of myself and Herself. Always these pictures look at us, and always they are smiling. There is one from our wedding party at home in Dunboyne, two from our actual wedding day, a picture from my masters graduation  (a qualification I earned with her welded tightly to my side it must be said), and three pictures from our forever memorable honeymoon in Turkey. This is how we should celebrate our events, not by posting albums and updates on the internet, but in front of the places we pass the most each day. I always try to print some photographs but rarely find a suitable place to see them. Perhaps what I should really be looking to do is not find better things to photograph, but to find more wall space, without which I might end up with no memories to really to celebrate.

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Some previously uploaded photo albums from my two months in Thailand can be found here:

Chiang Mai streets Part 1

MAYA

CMU Art Museum

Chiang Mai Sunday Market, January 5 2014

Night Bazaar, February 2014

And if you click this link you can see all my albums from Korea, Thailand, Ireland, and more…

Korea in Chiang Mai


You spend enough time in Asia as an Irishman and you give up expecting to find Irish stuff. You know you’ll stumble across something here or there, but at the best of times all you can find is a can of Guinness and a Westlife song. Chiang Mai, despite its large expat population and even larger tourist numbers was no better than Korea, or anywhere else I’ve been. I had hoped for half a day or so, but any hopes I had were soon dashed by the obvious.

Not so much of a disappointment was the preponderance of Korean influences. In fact it wasn’t really anything close to a disappointment. Obviously you can make that Asian connection, which in many respects is a loose connection. More significant to this is the economic connection, the good old supply and demand of goods and services. Despite these two, where Korea shined through the most was in its culture – that being its food and its music.

I could be in Suwon

Herself is better at spotting Korean music (do you spot with your ears?), and by Korean music I mean K-Pop of course, than I would be. It’s not essentially because she can hear the Korean, which would stand out, but I think because she has a better idea of what songs are out there at the moment. All I could hear was the confounding ‘jumping, jumping, everybody’ song by Crayon Pop. There were other instances too but for the most part when out and about you’d hear a K-Pop tune or two, and seeing as this wasn’t in Yeongtong where everywhere was playing the same K-Pop tune I was not prone to writhing in misery at all stages throughout the day.

My experience of Koreaness in Chiang Mai was by all accounts primarily visual. There was a fair amount around, but this popularity is clearly surmounted by the plethora of Japanese ramen and sushi places, and the unmissable presence of car after car of Japanese manufacture. The big pick-up Toyotas and Izzuzus rumbling up and down filled gangs of workmen are hard to ignore, and while this is notable in my two months there I only saw one Korean car, and a ten year old one at that. You can shun this but don’t forget that Hyundai-Kia are the fourth largest auto manufacturers in the world.

In the supermarkets though, Koreans could hold their own. There was no lack of ramyeon or indeed gochujang or your usual list of regular supermarket supplies. To add to this Korean cosmetics were to the forefront of most major supermarkets, equipped with a Korean flag and pristine models face; you’d almost think you were in E Mart at times.

Around town as well there was a decent number of Korean restaurants, of which we never bothered to eat in, although I think we promised ourselves often enough. Mostly they were barbecue places, but there was a dakgalbi place, and oh yes now I remember we tried a place called K-Pop Ddeokbokki which was, to be honest, awful. Not just for the name, but because the food was really bad, and not because it was Korean food in Thailand, because it was bad. I think the kimbap we had was passable, but maybe not.

There were a few other peculiarities about, like a Magic water purifier manufacturer store which was proud of its Koreaness, and there was a Tom and Toms coffee shop near where we were staying that seemed to be perpetually waiting to be opened. As much as a novelty as this was, I was happy we missed this grand affair. More random than all of this had to be the woman we ran into who was wearing a Lee Myung Bak election hoodie – yeah like the ones you see the electioneering dancers at the corner wear. She had no idea what it was about.

           

There were no shortage of Koreans out and about either. The familiar sounds of their voices followed us around, and it has to be said, I could spot them well in advance. There were the young university aged independent travelers over protected from the warm sun who wandered up and down Nimmanhaemin in the afternoon, and then there were the golf groups of men and women who stayed in the condo where we stayed. They mostly stuck to themselves, I suppose, and rarely came to the pool which I couldn’t understand.

I met one Korean man who actually lived in Ulan Bator in Mongolia – and to think Myself and Herself complained about the Korean winter – who was baffled by many of his fellow Koreans who just came to play golf all the time. While he played a little, he was mesmerised by the wonders of Chiang Mai and that there was in fact a lot to do. The guy was having a good time it has to be said, and was heartbroken when he got called back to Mongolia for work. He did however leave me a bottle of whiskey which he had yet to get around to putting a serious dent into.

For the most part though, Chiang Mai was comfortable place for many Koreans who lived there all the time. I’m not sure what they did but there is a decent core population who send their kids to the international schools, and they work and live in safety and comfort, although nowhere near on the same scale as the number of Japanese in the city. I suppose it’s always reassuring from our perspective to find a Korean community, even if we don’t necessarily interact with them for whatever reasons.

So this was Korea in Chiang Mai, or at least the Korean stuff which I experieced. I was pretty happy to see this all round, and hope that next time I visit there’ll be a better representation of my adopted home.

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In conclusion I should add that while Chiang Mai did appear Irishless, it did triumph in two particular areas – Tayto (once but once can sometimes be enough!) and cans of Bulmers!

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For those not in the know I spent two months in Chiang Mai from late December 2013 until the end of February 2014. It was a good time.

All photos taken with my aging iPhone 4

“Walking Street” – Chiang Mai


On a number of occasions while in Chiang Mai, we made it down to the famous Sunday market named Walking Street. There’s not really much to be said about it, other than they close the streets off from traffic early on Sunday evening then vendors set up and then thousands of tourists descend. The nice part about it is that although it is essentially a tourist market, there is nice festival atmosphere about the place, and that there are tourists from everywhere, including Thailand. What is also nice is that you get the usual tourist crap, but there’s also plenty of artists and crafts people who make their own stuff selling things there, so it’s worth a look. To find it, just go to Taphae Gate around 5pm on a Sunday evening in Chiang Mai.

These photographs are from our first visit, which was more of a scouting effort as opposed to subsequent visits where we managed to buy the place!

Please visit my set on Flickr to view more images*

(*an earlier version of this post did not include the link above)

All images © Conor O’Reilly 2014

The Shape of the City


There is a shape to every city. Sometimes it’s not visible automatically and it takes time for you to realise it. You can look from above, with a map for example, or you can walk the streets and see for yourself. In Suwon, where I live, the shape is a similar one throughout all the cities of Korea, and that is straight lines and sharp angles. If you wanted you could call it boxy. In Chiang Mai where I am now it is not, it is a bit more of every kind of shape.

From above, taking the map view, if you look at Chiang Mai you could argue that it is not Suwon or Korea which is boxy but Chiang Mai. This is a safe argument. Any map of this city will show the central old part of the city surrounded by its moat and the one way streets which operate as a kind of city blood circulation system.

A look at a city such as Suwon where I’ve lived for the past few years shows a more naturally shaped city, not one dictated by the direction of a wall, despite the fact that there is in fact a very complete city wall in the very centre of it.

On street level thought things are remarkably different.

In Korea I have grown accustomed to the square shape of everything, not necessarily from the streets, but definitely from the buildings which line them. There’s no doubting the density of Korea’s population, and with that density comes a serious demand to use space intensively. Of course if you visit any city you will find that the shape of choice is the cuboid, but in Korea I think that this shape persists throughout the country.

Aesthetics aside, it’s a functional arrangement which seems to suit the inhabitants. Aesthetics considered, it allows for a unique view of the world which revolves around straight lines and right angles, with the occasional curve or triangle thrown into the mix to make things interesting. The city that I live in, Suwon, is certainly a place that this argument rings through. You could say that it is ugly, because it is certainly not what is conventionally termed as pretty, but it is something worth looking at.

Time and people wear away the walls of what was once beautiful the most, and to see an old city still busy with the buildings it was built with is a different kind of aesthetic which is more popular. These parts of the city usually come with their own smells, sounds, and annoyances, but they are as much a part of the visual experience. That you have to take them in while you look or see attaches it to your memory in a different way.

Korea’s cities and towns have a raw and obnoxious feel to them. There is always noise, from engines, shops, shouting, and any number of other sources, and the smells fluctuate with the seasons. Don’t imagine I’m talking about the smell of the food cooking, I’m a bit more inclined to recall the smells of the exhausts and drains which linger differently depending on the weather and temperature outside.

The shapes I spoke about, and which I kind of obsess over, are my own idea of order inside the mess of the big city. These straight incorruptible lines and angles are the only barriers which keep everything within its bounds. In Korea, more than any other country or city I’ve been in, these lines and angles are so pronounced that they invade almost every image you can take from that country.

Chiang Mai is different, and I dare to say the rest of Thailand is different. The uniformity exists on the face of things, such as main streets, shopping malls, and the many condominiums, but here it stops. Behind the main streets, alleys and laneways streak off, and from here I believe it is anyone’s guess what shape will be taken.

The city is not as dense, and is certainly spread out more. This allows for the joys of gardens, and random empty space with no other function but to wait to be filled – if that ever will happen.

The availability of space allows for a different experience, and sees the city form as something less reliant of space permitting more freedom to experiment with form. This is mixed into what is basically a poorer city provides a blend between the robust and rigid shapes of Suwon, and a more laisez faire way of shaping the city.

Time effects every street, and the old seems to be replaced as quickly as anywhere, dust being the most obvious evidence of change. To any observer Chiang Mai is turning into a more cuboid city. Condominiums, although not tightly packed together, and businesses close to the town cramp the arteries in the best way they know, square next to square.

Still, not all the city is immersed in this rigidity, and it is a city worth wandering to see the mix between the old rustic disorganisation and the new cubed order.

 

These photographs were taken in Chiang Mai University’s Art Museum, an example of how to find the cubed rigidity and of modern architecture in Chiang Mai and the beauty which can emerge from it. To view these photographs and more please visit my set on flickr. 

 

Opening Day


For the past month or there abouts we’ve been fondly eyeing the monstrosity that is MAYA on the corner. MAYA, to those unfamiliar, is a(nother) shopping mall/centre that has just been built in Chiang Mai, this on the corner of Nimmanhaemin and the Super Highway.  It’s a large cuboid buiding with a funky honeycomb-like wavy pattern snaking around its exterior, with a screen blasting colourful and flashing advertisements into the Chiang Mai sunlight. It certainly stands out from the competition, which is mostly two or three storey buidlings, and the odd tall apartment or hotel not far away.

The opening day, January 23rd had long been announced, and from speaking with the other long term residents in the condo complex we’re staying I got the impression that most people were looking forward to it. It’s a bit of black hole in terms of proximity to everything, the nearest real amenity is a 7-Eleven and street of funky little shops with over priced restaurants around the corner. I suppose most people though were looking forward to the Starbucks and the supermarket, because the one a five minute drive away was just too far.

Also in relation to the opening day, we pretty much saw little to no activity around what looked to be a shell of a building for days, until the week before it was due to open. All day and late into the night trucks and pickups were pulling in weighed down with all kinds of boxes, sacks, and shop fittings, desperately trying to get set up for the deadline. I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen and enjoyed explaining these doubts to Herself, but yesterday there was complete chaos on the corner where MAYA is situated, and I suppose they got their stuff done.

This morning we headed down to see what all the fuss was about. Opening was set for 11AM but we were there before 10, and fortunately it was going to be a long drawn out opening. Anyone familiar with Thailand will know that it’s a fairly religious country when it comes to it’s Buddhist faith. In fact it seems like for even the opening of a packet of crisps they need to bring a monk or two around to give it the go ahead and wishg it good luck, because it’s all about luck, as opposed to medieval practices like marketing and business strategy. Even as you walk down the streets you can see little shrines offering snacks and drinks to the spirits in the hope that it will bring them favour. Of course a certain amount of this probably has to do with keeping up appearances, but it’s still a fascinating display as many of the shrines are colourful and well serviced.

I liken much of this to Ireland’s necessity for bringing a priest around to bless whatever it is that’s opening. While not as common a sight these days (I think/hope/wonder), getting the Church’s seal of approval was an important part of any opening ceremony. Whether there were crucifixes or portraits of the Virgin Mary lying around afterwards depended on the proprietor of course.

Thailand though seems to do it with much more vigour. There were prayers by a gentleman dressed from head to toe in white, who then proceeded to toss colourful flower petals over people’s heads, and then there was a line of monks who sat covered from the sun in a white tent who chanted away for a short while. We, to be honest, were far from enamoured by this performance, so we went looking for breakfast.

By the time we came back we were just in time to catch the opening of the doors. We piled in with everyone else full of oohs an aaahs, looking up at the large skylight full of dancing silver balloons dangling from some invisible tread. Everything was nice and shiny, with the exception of the odd tile or two which had not received the appropriate amount of grout, as Herself discovered when she kicked a piece ten yards down a half empty make-up aisle.

To our disappointment the supermarket wasn’t open, so we went to check out the food options. While there is always an excellent variety here in Thailand, we have become increasingly concerned with the lack of high-chairs for +1. At this stage she is 100% wriggle and run, and anything we can do to save our arms and allow us to enjoy some aspects of our meal takes precedence. We have discovered however that Thailand, to it’s detriment, is not a baby chair place. Maybe they just don’t take their kids out or something…

Anyway.

It’s a fine place this MAYA. We only hung around a short while just to get a feel for it, but we’ll be back I suppose, many times I imagine. Having something like this so close to where you live always makes you feel like you’re living a better life. Still as I walk through there even just window shopping all I can hear is my wallet contorting in agony as I pass buy another thing I think would look great in my possession, or stomach.

For more photographs from the opening of MAYA please follow this link to my Flickr page

All writing and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014