By the time this appears in print I shall be 7,000 miles away, so it might
better be called home thoughts from abroad. I’ve lived only five years of my
fairly long life in Thailand: half in month long chunks on annual holidays
during some 30 years and the rest travelling before settling in Chiang Mai.
Now that is the place which feels like home, since home we are told is where
the heart is.
It is all too easy to fall in love in Thailand, as well as with the country
itself – despite the many frustrations we visitors feel with a very
different way of life and with the authorities which can make us feel less
than welcome on occasion. Still if those observations were not true what
would the agony columns have to write about?
Still, without getting too personal I have to say I miss Chiang Mai already
and many of the people who live there. There are some things I don’t miss.
In England at present it is a pleasant 22 degrees and sunny, rather than the
40 plus you are having to suffer. Not surprisingly I don’t miss the
pollution and can only hope that the campaign which started after the
appalling conditions in March will not peter out.
Oddly, you might think, the thing I am happy to be away from is the state of
pavements (sidewalks to American speakers) and the general lack of places to
walk in the city. Either conditions or obstructions make walking difficult
or there is simply no place to walk. I often compare Chiang Mai – for the
sake of convenience and shorthand- with the British cities of York or
Edinburgh, so that people who perhaps know London and Bangkok can get some
idea of comparative size and location.
But those beautiful cities are pedestrian friendly, whilst in Chiang Mai
people are obliged to travel from place to place, adding to the congestion
and pollution. It gives the otherwise laid back atmosphere and unfortunate
sense of restless movement, especially in its centre.
In a city which now boasts fine restaurants and an excess of five star
hotels designed to attract affluent tourists alongside the rest of us, it
seems strange that chaotic pavements, derelict shops and obstructions are an
ugly and dangerous commonplace. The city authorities seem to have the
planning sense that operated in Tokyo 35 years ago (when I first went there)
and that is certainly not meant as a compliment. In short Chiang Mai has the
virtues of a sophisticated provincial ‘capital’ let down by surface
Despite these caveats it is surely the best city in Thailand in which to
live. Not the paradise I have heard it called but equally when I hear
long-term visitors or those planning to set up home in Thailand discussing
their options, I can barely suppress a scream when I hear Pattaya or Phuket
on the list. A few years ago Bangkok would have provoked the same reaction
but there things have actually improved as the excesses of that sprawling
metropolis have been partially contained Chiang Mai might learn from some of
the improvements made by its big brother.
But Bangkok, for all its cultural opportunities and excitement, lacks charm.
And that is something which Chiang Mai has in abundance- making it a place
to live in not just visit. The amenities and choice of cultural activities
are there in abundance if only one has the patience to track them down.
Let’s hope that the re-launched Chiang Mai Mail will develop its information
section in the near future.
The other advantage here is that the beautiful surroundings are easy to
access. It is not just the city itself which I shall miss in the next few
weeks but the whole environment. I’ve spent at least a third of my life
travelling, mainly for work, and have found just three other cities (outside
the U.K.) which have a similar appeal. They are Copenhagen in Europe,
Vancouver in Canada and Wellington in New Zealand. Even so, Chiang Mai comes
out on top. Is that because of the city itself or the country of which it is
such a fascinating part? I guess the answer to that is 50-50.And I guess
that is where I came in.
Tony Bennett had a famous hit song about San Francisco and somehow it does
not sound quite right as I Left My Heart in Chiang Mai. But that’s about the
size of it.