Thailand essentially has two seasons, [temperate & dry] and [hot, humid, & rainy]. November through February is the “high season” when many tourists come to escape the cold weather of northern latitudes. March through October is the “low season” when tourists mostly stay away to avoid the heat/humidity. Some businesses don’t adjust to the reduced “low season” pricing until April, but most of the people I’ve talked to here consider March the start of the “low season”. In Chiang Mai the temperature nears or exceeds 38 degrees Celsius (100 Degrees Fahrenheit) on a daily basis now. It does cool down at night however and is typically near 20 degrees Celsius (68 Degrees Fahrenheit) just before the sun rises. The humidity isn’t too bad yet since it still hasn’t rained since I arrived in January.
Like many others I choose to stay inside in an air conditioned place during the worst of the daily heat; malls, movie theaters, and department stores are good choices. Most pubs and restaurants are “open air” like big covered patios so air conditioning is not an option. Instead they run a multitude of fans, sometimes with a mist system, that really helps to bring the temperature down – about 10 degrees.
On the golf course, umbrellas are as common as caddies; nearly everybody has one (caddies are required for non-members). It’s portable shade and helps to keep you a bit cooler than just a hat. Drinking plenty of water is also a must.
Another annual event that begins with the low season, and lasts about a month and a half, is farmers burning the rice fields and forest undergrowth. It’s an inexpensive way to clear the rice fields to prepare for the next crop and in the forest, the burning improves the mushroom harvest. Unfortunately it creates a layer of smoke that, on the worst days, will burn the eyes and may be particularly hard on those with respiratory problems. Every cloud has a silver lining as they say, and I suppose that the pleasing sunset created by the smoke in the air is the silver lining of the rice straw burning here and in neighboring countries. I’ve seen smoke like this before with the Southern California wild fires in October of 2007. I think the smoke in California was worse though as I remember seeing an orange sun in the middle of the day, not just in the evening.
The Doi Suthep mountains are nine miles west of Chiang Mai. On clear days, you can see the Wat Phra That Temple on the mountain. On bad days, you can’t see the mountains at all. The photo below was taken on what I’d call an average day. If it weren’t for the distant mountains to reference, you might not know it was smokey at all.
Twice during my time here in Chiang Mai I sought out medical treatment. The first was for upset stomach, likely from something I ate that I shouldn’t have. I felt the trouble coming on at about 10:00 pm and started a course of Ciprofloxacin that I bought when I first arrived in Thailand. Antibiotics are over-the-counter here and don’t require a prescription. 500 mg twice a day for 5 to 7 days (continue taking for two days after all symptoms have disappeared). The next morning I was feeling some better but wanted to get something for the nausea. After stopping at a couple pharmacies without much success I opted to go to the hospital nearby, partly for some medicine and partly to check out the medical system in Thailand which I’ve read was quite good. I was impressed with the efficiency of the medical treatment. Right outside the elevator door where I exited was a desk to check into the clinic. The check-in process took about three minutes and I went to the waiting room. I barely sat down when I was called to see the doctor who spoke good English. He checked me over, agreed with the cipro antibiotic course, and prescribed bismol tablets 524 mg (Pepto-Bismol) for the nausea. I inquired about a G.I. cocktail, also known as the green goddess, but was told it’s not as common in Thailand as it is in the USA. I was in and out in about 40 minutes with the bismol tablets from the hospital pharmacy for a total cost of 525 baht ($17.50). I felt fine in less than three days and finished off a five day course of cipro as recommended.
The second time I needed medical care was for a back strain. I pulled the muscles in my middle back while securing a box onto my motorbike. It was the worst back pain I had ever experienced. This time I went to the emergency room. Again, a quick check-in and in to see the doctor. He checked out my back and ordered x-rays. The x-ray film was quickly scanned into the computer and was up on the doctor’s monitor in his office by the time I got back to the ER from radiology. The x-rays looked fine and a mild pain killer and muscle relaxers were prescribed. Total time… less than an hour. Total cost for ER, Doctor, Two X-rays, and Prescriptions… 2,800 baht ($90.00). The worst of the pain subsided in 24 hours and I was back to normal in a week.
I have no medical insurance over here so all medical costs are paid directly by me. Other people that I’ve met that live here full time buy catastrophic coverage medical insurance for about $1,000 to $2,000 per year depending on the policy, and pay for minor medical treatment (like above) out-of-pocket if not covered by their insurance plan.
The Honda click that I had been renting for more than a month without any problems finely gave me a minor one, a flat tire. The rear tire on the bike was getting pretty bald in the middle, though as it turns out, the hole in the tube was in the side wall not the tread area. Strange, but it is what it is. I took the bike to a bike shop and called the rental company figuring they would take care of the flat tire problem. I was wrong. I was required to pay for the flat tire repair which meant putting a patch on the tube, not replacing the worn tire. The cost was only 40 baht ($1.35) and the job was done in under 15 minutes. I was assured that the tire had plenty of life left in it.
Replacing the tire would cost about 750 baht ($25.00), nearly 1/3 of the rent for the month for this bike, and the bike may not be rented again until the next “high season”. So, I understand why they try to get as many kilometers (miles) out of the tires as they can. In reality, the purpose of the tread on a tire is to provide an exit path for water from under the tire to prevent hydroplaning. Since there has been no rain here, the lack of tread is of little concern. During the rainy season however, it could be very dangerous.
After the incident with the flat tire, I asked around at various motorbike rental shops – “who pays for a flat tire repair, the renter or the shop?”. As it turns out there is no standard and the results were split about 50/50. Some shops said the renter pays for the tire repair, others said they would pay for the repair.
At the end of the monthly rental agreement I decided to change motorbikes, partly because of the tire problem (with the rainy season imminent) and partly because I wanted a bit larger bike for longer, more comfortable rides. What I settled on was a Honda PCX 150 from a different rental company. The PCX’s engine is 25cc (20%) larger than the Click’s, but the bike is heavier so performance is similar at the low end, though faster at the high end. I’ve heard the PCX is governed to a top speed of 115 KPH (71 MPH), though I’ve never gone that fast on it. The larger tires and upgraded suspension make for a more comfortable ride, and I’d recommend the PCX to anyone renting a motorbike here. This upgrade, of course, comes at a higher price; 4,500 baht ($145) per month and a 2000 baht ($65) security deposit. Shop around; I found one place renting the same model for 9,000 baht per month.
Other advantages of the PCX are larger on-board storage under the seat, and a larger fuel tank. With the Click I had to get fuel nearly every day; with the PCX I refuel only once or twice a week. It was only an inconvenience but, with the Click, I found myself driving around looking for gas stations fairly often; sometimes driving miles out of my way to refuel.
In an effort to reduce costs, I moved into a one bedroom apartment which was cheaper than the hotels. I was able to get this apartment for just over 15,000 baht ($485) for one month which comes out to $16 per day. That is 10 to 30 dollars cheaper than a hotel and in some ways nicer. It was also available for 13,000 baht on a 6 month lease, but I wouldn’t be staying that long. The apartment complex also had studio apartments available for 6,000 baht ($195) per month on a 6 month lease.
The furniture was provided, but I had to buy bedding, cleaning supplies, kitchen necessities, etc. It was a corner unit and was nice enough, but in the end turned out to be too noisy since it was right along the road. I left at the end of the one month lease term in favor of a quieter place.
While I was there I met some other foreigners that were staying in the complex. They hired a cleaning lady to come in once a week and clean their apartments. I could do that minor cleaning myself, but it was a minor expense for me and a big help to the cleaning lady so I hired her too. She did a good job sweeping and mopping the whole place including the balcony, wiping down the counters, dusting, and cleaning the bathroom. She spent an hour there each Friday and charged me 200 baht ($6.25) for her services.
The apartment had a Thai style kitchen with no cook top/stove. Hotplates and counter-top small kitchen appliances are used instead. I just ate out or brought food home from a local market instead of purchasing a bunch of kitchen appliances. Also notable, there was no hot water at the kitchen sink, or the bathroom sink for that matter. The only hot water was for the shower/tub. There were two air conditioner units, one in the living room and one in the bed room.
No matter where you go, laundry is created on a daily basis. The apartment complex I was in had a laundry room with ~10 washing machines. There were no dryers since all laundry is hung out to dry. The balcony of my apartment had a clothes rack bolted to the wall for drying clothes as seen in the photo above. The washer takes 20 baht ($0.65) to do a load and runs for 42 minutes. The design of the washers was different from anything I had seen before and they use substantially less water than the top loading machines found in the US. The water level is set automatically, just put in the cloths, soap, and money and press start.
Since I have left the apartment I no longer have access to the washing machines and now opt for a laundry service. The friendly Thai lady speaks English well enough and charges a reasonable 4 baht ($0.13) per item (a pair of socks counts as one item). I just drop off the clothes and pick them up the next day washed, dried, and folded.
I arrived in Thailand with a “tourist visa” that was valid for 60 days. Before the visa expired I had to head to the Chiang Mai immigration office near the airport to request an extension. I had read that the process takes a couples hours and the 30 day extension costs 1,900 baht ($61). For me, it took all morning. The immigration office gets quite busy during the “high season” since there are many tourists applying for extensions. The motorbike parking lot had about 100 bikes parked there the day I went.
The process was pretty easy and there are several food vendors in the area that make the wait more comfortable with a snack or drink. I think Chiang Mai Immigration is doing a great job serving the multitude of tourists that come through there.
While driving along the mote in the old city one day, I noticed that a section of the mote had been drained. I was told that this is done from time to time to change and freshen the water and to prepare for the Songkran festival (the Thai New Year celebration). The Songkran festival lasts from April 13th to the 15th (often longer here in Chiang Mai) and is touted as the worlds biggest water fight. Throughout the city people douse each other with water from squirt-guns, buckets, hoses, etc. These soakings are usually desirable because April is the hottest month and I’m already seeing temperatures forecast to be 41 degrees C (106 degrees F) in March.
In closing, I’ll just mention an interesting observation regarding international phone calls between Thailand and the US. I got a prepaid SIM card for my smart phone when I arrived in Thailand. Calls to the US cost 1 baht ($0.03) per minute and the call quality is very good. When people call me from the US the cost ranges form $0.20 to $1.25 per minute and the call quality is fair at best, but is typically poor. Because of this whenever someone calls me, we end the call immediately and I call them right back for a cheaper, better-voice-quality conversation.
There is a lot to like about Thailand!