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

Nimmanhaemin


I had heard Nimmanhaemin being compared to Hongdae in Seoul, and thought well this could be something. There is no doubt that Nimmanhaemin is something, but other than the fact that the street and neighbourhood is located next to a univeristy and is known for its artistic vibe, many of the comparisons stop there.

Don’t let that dissuade any Koreaphiles from the place, because what it lacks in comparison with Hongdae it makes up for in spadefuls with it’s own vibe which does a lot to add to the personality of Chiang Mai itself. It is not a tourist location, it’s more a place where people live hang out. There is a plethora of expats mixed in with young Thais enjoying the trendy culture Nimmanhaemin grows.

iberryguy

Around these parts you have fewer Buddhist temples and those pesky (so-called) travel agents, and more places to chill and eat. It is a place to frequent, to hang about, and be a man or woman about town. The long street is always busy it seems, but branching off this thoroughfare are alleys, or Soi, each conveniently numbered from one upwards (odds on left, evens or the right), that have more bars, cafes, boutiques, and all sorts of other things, that make exploring a healthy past time on a warm January afternoon.

On Nimmanhaemin you have two sides; the hectic main street busy with not only purring tuktuks and songthaeus, but music and merry making from the assortment of patrons who have decided on this area for the day, and the lazy laid back alleys as green as a rain forest and as warm as a mother’s hug.

There’s a lot to see on Nimmanhaemin, and the best way to do it is just to walk around and get lost. Bring lots of money and prepare yourself for amazing dessert options even before you consider your main meal. They also serve some fantastic coffee in parts too. I’ve only been here during the day, so I can’t speak of the place after dark, but it has the look of devilment which I may subscribe to.

Today we spent a wandering about the Soi of Nimmanhaemin. Being me, I took many photos (mostly with my iPhone 4), and if it takes your fancy pop over to youtube and view this as a slideshow.

What about your neighbourhood? What sights and sounds abound?

Supermarkets -v- the People?


It has been bothering me since about the time it has been instigated. It’s a simple thing that shouldn’t really get me agitated as it has very little effect on me, and in many respects it is a good principal to take. It’s just that I think it’s the wrong step and I don’t think it really solves any problems, only encourages more populist resolutions to complicated social and economic problems.

What am talking about? Sunday closing for the so-called discount stores in Korea.

Now lets establish some terminology first.

“Discount stores” are what major supermarket chains are called in Korea. These include E-Mart (part of Shinsaegae international), Homeplus (owned by Tesco, the second largest supermarket company in the world), and Lotte Mart, which are the biggest ones.

“Sunday closing” is a government regulation which has called for all “discount stores” to close on two Sundays a month, or in some cases two Wednesdays a month. The reason for this is because they were blamed by smaller businesses for taking away too much business from smaller shops and businesses which were nearby.

Now that we understand this, allow me to explain why I find this to be bothersome.

To begin with there’s the obvious inconvenience of wanting to buy something that the major supermarkets stock. I personally haven’t been overly bothered by this on many occasions, and I’ll admit that the one time it really did get to me, and is probably where the idea for this blog post came from, was on a nice Sunday afternoon when I decided to stop by Yeongtong Homeplus and pick up some tasty foreign beer.

I fancied a few warm cans of something elaborate and I was looking forward to the painstaking decision I would have to make in the aisles. When I came to the front of the supermarket the shutter was pulled down and there was a big yellow banner acorss it explaining, I imagine, that it wasn’t their fault I couldn’t buy my beer, blame the government.

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I don’t doubt that at this moment you’re thinking I’m some crazed anti-government vigilante who feels the world is against him, but this is not the case. I am not going to go into why I didn’t want Korean beer either, but if you’ve been in Korea long enough, you’ll understand. The way I see it is that as a consumer we’re being forced to buy things we don’t want to buy when there are better alternatives available.

I’m all for buying from the little guy, believe me, and I would happily choose the alternative over a major mulitnational blood sucking vampire such as Tesco any day of the week. But I’m also a consumer who has grown accustomed to buying food and products that meet a certain standard, and there’s also the added bonus of liking a bit of variety in my life also.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

One of the arugments put forward for Sunday closing was that the prices of the major supermarkets were suffocating the smaller businesses. But if you’ve spent any amount of time in the supermarkets, you can’t really argue successfully that they are in fact ‘discounted’ prices. Yes there are some discounted goods, but really can you say they are slicing a hole in the belly of the competition and watching them bleed dry on the streets? No. Maybe a pinprick would be a more apt comparison.

There is more to this picture than just prices, its the very nature of competition and the lack of innovation in the realm of small businesses. Take smaller supermarkets for example. What do they sell that would make you want to choose them over the major supermarkets? Nothing. In fact that lack of variety and bog standard middle-to-bottom of the line brands in stock are in my opinion a turn off, especially to young and middle sized families, the kind of people who go into a supermarket and drop 200,000 won in a weekly shop. Other than being a place where you can pick up something urgently in case you run out, I struggle to see what other function they can serve. Of course across the world these smaller shops suffer from the same plight, so it’s not only a Korean problem.

Before this situation with supermarkets came to light, it was another issue raised by smaller restaurants who again complained that the supermarkets where threatening their business. Around 2010 or 2011 Lotte Market announced they were selling fried chicked for around 5,000 won per portion. Compare this with the standard delivered variety costing over 10,000. You can imagine why the fried chicken restaurants went up in arms over this. Not long after this E mart copied them by selling jumbo pizzas at cut prices, and again the pizza shop fraternity went baloobas. In the end the government jumped in and put a stop to this opportunism by the considerably wealthier and resourceful supermarkets by putting a cap on the number they could sell every day.

If we take a look at the pizza and fried chicken places around Korea you can see the problems already, as there are already too many. To the average armchair enthusiast they seem to be a get rich quick scheme which doesn’t seem to be such a hot ticket any more. Pizza places seemed to be the next to follow, and recently I’ve noticed a surge in tteokboki restaurants – I suppose it depends on what’s being promoted the most at whatever franchise fair people end up going to with a sack of inheritance.

*This video will give you an idea of the problems with the fried chicken business in Korea

The propenderence of fried chicken and pizza franchises, to name a few, is a key ingredient in understanding where I’m coming from. I see that these clearly point to a lack of much needed innovation in the small business sector.

For example, if you have all your little supermarkets which are competing against E Mart and Tesco change their stock to sell organic or direct from farm fruit and veg, or high end products, or homemade/locally produced condiments (you know the kind of stuff I’m talking about) you’ll not only encourage people to shop there you encourage the wider national agricultural economy to prosper. This is just an example. Easier said than done I know.

Another avenue is to really go out of your way to provide excellent service. Take camera shops for example. If you go into a camera shop, the guy selling you the stuff is a photographer, and knows all about what you are looking at. Invariably they throw in all sorts of others freebies like bags, memory cards, and other things. Of course the supermarkets aren’t the threat to these people’s livelihood. Their situation is even more serious because they have to compete against the internet.

For the most part a lot of the people who own these places are older, don’t have a lot of money, and really lack the inclination to innovate. Perhaps though they could lease out their premisis to someone with the inclination to innovate. Retail rents are extraordinary at the best of times, but if they could do a deal where the older owner keeps his deposit down as kind of insurance while the younger person pays the rent and some, or something to that effect.

I’ve heard before that a lot of these places are only kept open by some older people because they don’t really have anything else to do, so you know, they keep plugging along. This is mere speculation of course as there are undoubtedly other social issues which may be at play which I’m unaware of.

Regardless, the main thing is that the business is busy and the people involved are all making money. I know that this will not be something that will not happen overnight, and I know that in many circumstances it will not happen at all.

Populism and complaint to the nanny state will continue on as before. If a little innovation were to come it needs to be encouraged by those in a position to do so. There’s no reason why people who are already burdeoned with inexplicably high rents need to suffer because no one wants to buy what they are trying to sell. But at the same time, if no one really wants to buy it perhaps its worth considering what it is for sale.

There is so much room for growth in Korea, despite what people might think, but it is on a micro scale. Large scale development has polarised the economy and increasingly society. If a little vision were employed perhaps we could find ourselves living in new neighbourhoods which were welcoming to all our tastes.

The Institution of Bap


Food in Korea is a national obsession. I used to think when I first came to Korea that all people talked about was money, until I learned some of the language that is. Then I realised that a lot of the time when people were talking about money they were discssing how much a particular dish or food cost. Food and eating has even gone to the point where ‘did you have lunch?’ is a greeting. Korea is one of the few places in the world where there will be a television in the restaurant where there will be a television programme on about food from a different restaurant.

Last year I sat in a restaurant in Gangeung with Herself’s family. I was sitting across from my mother-in-law and Herself’s aunt, and throughout the meal both women went through the menu on the wall discussing how each ingredient in each dish could be made to taste more delicious and how you could prepare it to taste better.

Last January when I was here one of the biggest concerns before we left for our isolated location in the mountains was what would be done about food, with not an eyelid batted with the mention that we would have no communication with the outside world for seven days.

It is an obsession here. Be that a good or bad thing.

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