Thailand's economy was one of East Asia's best performers just after my visit of the region in 2000. It grew 6.9% in 2003 and 6.1% in 2004 despite a sluggish global economy.
Then, in late December 2004, a major tsunami took 8,500 lives and caused massive destruction of property in the southern provinces of Krabi, Phangnga, and Phuket.
In 2006, investment stagnated as investors became wary of the corrupt Thaksin administration and it's political problems which culminated in a military coup in September 2006.
Following the general election in December 2007, Thailand has returned to democratic rule under a coalition government. Future prospects are good as exports have performed at record levels, rising nearly 17% in 2006 and 12% in 2007.
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I was welcomed in Bangkok by my Internet friend Somluk accompanied by a friend and her cute daughter.
Somluk and I riding an escalator in Bangkok's very modern Suvarnabhumi airport some 25 km east of the city.
After a very pleasant few days in Bangkok I flew to beautiful Chiang Mai in the north where I looked for a comfortable apartment like the one I had occupied the previous winter in Buenos Aires. I visited several very nice furnished flats available at very reasonable rates (300 - 400 $/month), in modern residential complexes but they were all far from the center like this one in the northwest outskirts of town.
The Hillside 4 complex was heaven for many farang retirees who have become permanent residents when they discovered they could enjoy a higher standard of living here than they could afford at home.
The apartment was great, with pool, fitness club and other amenities but it was not the colourful, noisy Chiang Mai I had returned to explore.
This panoramic view of busy Wararot market (between the old city and Ping river), is representative of what makes me travel, a sea of ordinary people, all different yet each one a new mirror in which to find myself.
I chose to stay in one of Chiang Mai's innumerable guesthouses, the RCN Court at 35 Soi 7 Moonmuang in the north east quadrant of the old city,
The RCN was an interesting place with a drag queen manager, quaint long term tenants and a bad tempered old lady who cooked up the most delicious Thai meals in this attendant restaurant.
I will try to provide as many practical details as possible so that those who might be tempted to visit Chiang Mai will know what to expect.
My room here had air-con, a fan, a fridge, cable TV, hot showers and wifi Internet, all for 11$ per day.
I enjoyed the RCN and stayed here a week but my legs, painfully swollen since the 22 hour flight from Montreal to Bangkok, did not like having to climb stairs to get to my room.
My legs and I discussed the matter and finally agreed that we should move to a ground floor room or to a place with an elevator.
Navigating Chiang Mai's maze of streets and alleys is easy once you know that
the alleys (sois), branching off the main streets (called roads) bear their
road's name plus a number, thus, 35 Soi 7 Moonmuang road means the 35th building
on the seventh alley off Moonmuang road. It sounds simple but smaller alleys
branching off sois tend to complicate things.
I would not be bothered to venture in Montreal's back alleys but exploring the Chiang Mai's sois is definitely worth while. That's where the real heart of the city beats.
One day, I came across this interesting view of egg noodles hanging out to dry in the sun in front of the house of a local micro-entrepreneur.
A few hundred meters further I saw a nice Thai house and asked to look around. Here is a view from their back yard garden. I would not mind living there at all!
The Lam Chang temple was just across the soi from the RCN guesthouse. Every day, a dozen pushcart merchants offered a variety of street food at the entrance. I did not have to go far to find fresh fruit or takeaway meals.
Just around the corner sprawled the oldest temple in town, the great Wat Chiang Man whose construction by the city's founder Phaya Mengrai, is thought to have begun around 1296. It comprises the two viharn seen here (large assembly halls), a chedi (stupa containing sacred relics), a ubosot (a smaller consecrated ceremonial hall reserved for monks where women are not allowed) and a variety of other structures.
Here we see, the ubosot on the left, the highly revered chedi directly behind the main viharn on the right and a minor structure in between.
Religious beliefs occupy a large "space" in the lives of the Thai People.
This couple, casually praying in the main viharn are probably expressing the
same variety of desires as do all those who turn to religion for hope and solace
(even though their deities and beliefs are completely different).
The smaller second viharn has the traditional naga serpents guarding the entrances but lacks the three roof level reductions in front that characterize the pure Lanna style of Northern Thailand.
Inside, we find a family joined in prayer, evidence again of Thai piety.
I moved into several different guesthouses with rooms on the ground floor in my search for a fully furnished apartment in the city center with an elevator and a proper kitchen where I could practice Thai cooking. This condo belonging to Roger, a friendly American expat, was tempting by its location, size and price (300$/month). It even had a real kitchen with a gas wok stove and air vent but it did not have Internet. We tried to set up a wifi system but failed so I had to continue my search.
It was a pleasure to find my old friend Roland Roblin whom I had met on my last visit to Chiang Mai eight years ago.
Roland chose Chiang Mai as the ideal place to retire after a successful career in the petrochemical industry with Exxon in France. We had common acquaintances but never met during the eight years I was with ELF in Paris.
His Thai girlfriend Dang is the living proof that the new method of teaching French that he developed really works.
We spent several pleasant evenings together, this one in the Oriental Guest
House on Loi Kroh road where I stayed a few days while trying to get Internet
service installed in Roger's rental condo nearby.
Not far from the Oriental Guest House was Wat Loi Khraw where I spied upon this group of ladies doing tai chi exercises.
When they saw me, they invited me to join them which I did. My legs were so swollen that I had difficulty with the footwork. Then, one of the ladies brought me a chair and I did "sitting down tai chi". Tai chi does not look like exercise but when it was over, I felt muscles in my shoulders I did not know existed!
One fine Saturday morning my friends Nut and Nuy took me out for a picnic at the Sankampaeng hot springs not far from the hospital of the same name where Nut is a nurse.
A major attraction of this place, apart from the beautifully landscaped grounds, is cooking eggs in bamboo baskets suspended on hooks around this basin of almost boiling water.
Nut and Nuy looking around for a free picnic table for three adults and three kids. Naturally, we had eggs, ritually boiled in the hot spring, accompanied with spicy Thai delicacies the girls had prepared. This was a happy place with a lot of people joking, laughing and enjoying a foot bath.
It was a memorable outing on a beautiful day...
...Naturally ending with a family like group picture with Nuy, myself, Nut and her daughter Nub in the back and Nuy's daughter Toy and Nut's younger girl Nurse in front.
On the way back to CM we drove by this residential development to see the fine houses that retired farangs were picking up for ridiculously low prices.
If I were younger I would buy a couple of these and rent them as a long term
I also considered renting a condo on the top floor of the Chang Klan Residence for 300 US$ per month but demurred because it was too far from the centre to my taste.
This 45 sq. meter studio would have been fine for me were it not for my swollen legs. I know that I'm boring some of you with all this information on long term lodgings but please be patient, this info might be hugely useful to someone seeking the best place to retire on a limited pension plan.
Finally, I gave up the search for a condo with kitchen and the goal of learning Thai cooking. A ground floor room close to the pool in the Top North Guesthouse, at 15 Moonmuang Soi 2, would have been great but they were all occupied so I stayed at the VIP Guesthouse across the soi (small room for 12$/day) and paid a 3$ fee to use the pool a few times..
The year 2007 ended with constant good weather and without the harassment of Christmas time commercial hype and music we have to endure in Europe and the Americas.
A Chang (elephant) beer at the terrace of the Montri hotel next to the old city's Tha Phae Gate was a fine way to welcome 2008.