Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Strawberry Ride

Nut's on her way to Bangkok tonight to be with her daughter, Dui Dui, who's about to give birth to her first grandchild and I've been hanging out with Willy and Janice, Homer friends who are here on the tail end of a two-month trip around SE Asia. Lots of great chit-chat, gossip and travel information were passed back and forth across the table at one of my favorite restaurants near Thapae Gate in the old city. You might recall I talked about Janice in some of my early blogging because she has been a friendly and knowledgeable influence on my traveling and my destinations: she's been practically everywhere in the world, and sometimes more than once.

Anyway, yesterday was a beautiful day (aren't they all?) and seeing as we're pretty much settled into our new place over breakfast I suggested a ride into  the country to buy some strawberries. Nut, always up for explorations involving food, immediately started gathering up her motorcycling gear. Strawberries are both a tradition around here and an important crop for which the area is famous. We repeated a ride we had done with Big Al a few months ago before the strawberry season, a loop through the little town of Samoeng, which is about 30 km west of Chiangmai. The roads are, well, I imagine you'll soon tire of hearing me say it, perfect for motorcycling. Absolutely perfect. Smooth and very twisty, with light traffic and just enough ups and downs to make it interesting. Goddamn, it's pretty country!

View Samoeng Loop in a larger map

As we approached Samoeng, Nut began to notice signs on trees and fence posts advertising a certain strawberry farm a few kilos ahead. There were roadside stands selling berries along the highway but for some reason Nut had become fixated on getting to this particular farm, so we persevered, or I guess I should say, I persevered, until we reached the Wongwan Farm just a bit south of Samoeng. Nut's intuition is seldom faulty and I reckon I should just learn to trust it more because the little farm turned out to be quite an interesting place -- a farm, resort, and restaurant located in a fertile and pretty valley nestled in the same hills that make motorcycling so damn much fun. People come here to buy strawberries and to pick them. Some even stay in the funky little bungalows to get away from the city and immerse themselves in the rural atmosphere.

At Wongwan Farm - smoke from burning fields is plainly visible

The CBR at Wongwan Farm (N18.83837, E98.72796)

Nut attempts to carry a heavy berry-burden -- about 40 lbs of berries on a bamboo stick
Nut picking strawberries
In the photos you can see the pall of smoke that curses the northern provinces every spring. At this time of year rural Thais, farmers and townspeople alike, burn everything they see. At least that's the way it seems to me. I can understand burning weeds and chaff in fallow rice paddies, but they also burn roadsides, deeply forested hillsides, railroad corridors, in short anything or any area that has combustible material present. It's crazy and seems to serve no definable purpose, there are even laws prohibiting it, but every spring countless fields and forests are burned to the point that visibility drops to few meters in some areas -- busy urban airports actually close. Nobody, no farang anyway, can understand this frenzy to burn but it's widespread and totally out of control. Many folks look forward to the beginning of the rainy season when the water will wash the air and subjugate the smoke and heat from this annual burning.

I struck up a conversation with this nice young fellow, the owner of a new 150cc Vespa scooter, as I waited for Nut to finish picking berries. Like most Thais, he was very friendly and cooperative especially as I had asked him if I could take a picture of his bike. I've become curious about Vespas because two of my Homer buddies (Sean and Al) told me one night over drinks that they would gladly pay $4,000 for an older restored Vespa scooter. I  don't understand that and intend to do a short entry about Vespas at a future date.

Talk to you later, and stay tuned....

Saturday, February 25, 2012

We're living in Chiang Mai

It's been quite a while since I last wrote. A lot has happened since the apartment hunting episode. Of course we found a nice place as I've already mentioned -- not as quaint as the one on Samsen Soi 4 in Bangkok but it's brand new and quite a bit larger for about the same money. Our new place is actually roomier than the cabin where I spent the last three summers up on Diamond Ridge. And it has running water!

A couple of weeks ago I did a 4-day stint with my Homer buddies over in Nan where we traveled on some of the best motorcycling roads in Thailand -- terrific stuff. Then Nut and I made the return to Bangkok to pack our things for the move to our new place. But the break in writing is mostly because I've been lazy. What we've been up to these days isn't particularly exciting. The mundane, quotidian things that everyone must do when moving just does not make that compelling a story. And I imagine any guy who writes about his day to day routine while trying to make it sound perpetually exciting must slip into the doldrums occasionally. That's where I've been.

I've also been reading. A lot. I finished several page turners over the past couple of weeks. I've really been caught up in reading books on my little Netbook computer. I buy them from Amazon online and usually have several going at one time. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, is about a family of doctors set in Ethiopia. Verghese himself is a doctor, so the story is especially compelling and very well done. His writing is smooth and masterful, his characters breathe on the page. A hell of a good book.

I also read 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann. It's about the Columbian Exchange, as researchers call it, and is the reason there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in Florida, chocolates in Switzerland, and chili peppers in Thailand (not to mention rubber trees and sugar cane). When Columbus opened the New World the planet was changed drastically and permanently by these exchanges, either intentional or accidental, of plants, animals, and people, including slaves. I read Mann's earlier book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, about the Western Hemisphere before its  discovery and subsequent domination by Europeans, and loved that one as well.

And Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival ... by Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote and received critical acclaim for her book Seabiscuit a few years ago. This is the true story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic runner and bombardier on a B-24 Liberator bomber in the Pacific Theater during WWII. The plane crashed in mid-ocean in 1943. After surviving shark attacks, starvation and serious dehydration during 47 days adrift he was rescued. But by the Japanese. Far from being over, his ordeal was only beginning. This is one of the most remarkable war stories I've ever read, and I've read plenty of them. Now I feel compelled to read Seabiscuit, a book that came out when I worked in the library and that I dismissed out of hand because I didn't want to read about some damn old race horse.

A couple of photos from the bike trip deserve inclusion. Appearing below are almost the same cast of characters I first rode with two years ago on my first visit to Thailand. "Vancouver Andy" is missing but Sean from Homer, as the only Phantom owner, is with us. Along with being lifetime motorcycle riders all are Homer residents and regular winter visitors to Thailand. From the left we see DC, Al, Sean, and yours truly on route 1081 north of Nan. Al and I did this same trip a few months ago but we were both riding Phantoms then. He recently retired his 2005 Phantom, trading up to a Kawasaki KLX 250, while I have the CBR. This tour was more demanding because we did it at a faster pace. But it was lots more fun. The CBR is very well suited to the tight curves and seems to go through them so much more eagerly than the Phantom cruiser.

The Homer crew on Route 1081, north of Nan
The next day DC and I did another well known loop out of Nan to the north. This one involves Route 1148, another outrageously beautiful road that's blessed with innumerable curves and hills. Riding with DC is a challenge because he likes to go fast, very fast. But the motto with us is always, ride your own ride; that is, don't try to drive beyond your ability. Good advice for any rider. It was an awesome loop and one I'm sure to do again, especially now that I live in the north.

View of Route 1148

Nut and I went down to Bangkok last week by sleeper train. While we were there she packed everything up, separating things to leave behind for her daughter from the stuff we wanted to take to Chiang Mai. Rather than moving everything we elected to give away a lot of the smaller and easily replaced stuff. We sold our fridge to one of Nut's girlfriends which left the new 40" LED flatscreen TV as our only bulky item. Homer friends Albie, Phil, Big Al and Sean were all in Bangkok so we resumed our "regular meetings" at the Gecko Bar on Rambuttri Road. They were readying to return to Alaska but hanging out in The Big Mango for a few days before their flights winged homeward.

(As I write only Albie is still in Thailand -- the rest have returned to face the remainder of a Homer winter that some would term wonderful, and others awful. (I'd be in the latter camp.) There are many feet of snow on the Ridge above town -- my friend Jenny told me she's never seen snow like that in her 19 years up there. It will be around until well into June.)

I tried to get our assorted bags and boxes in the freight car where they belonged in order to keep them out of the way of the other passengers (and us) but even with Nut's help, was unable to work the Thai system to make that happen. First, the freight scales were broken, or at least that's what our hired porter insisted. Imagine, you're in Bangkok, the capitol of Thailand, at the the main rail station and you need to ship some equipment to Chiang Mai. But the scales don't work. Seems impossible doesn't it? Not in Thailand. (Well, maybe not in Laos or Cambodia either ;-)

Our guy said to Nut, No problem, for 200 baht I'll help you load your stuff into your passenger car with you. I kept insisting I wanted to pay and did not want to force other passengers, and us, to have to deal with our stuff throughout the ride. In the end there was no other way. Into the luggage racks went our stuff, all of it, including the big TV. I'm sure we were set up by the porter and I'm pretty sure Nut was in collusion with him just a wee bit. She didn't want to pay the freight rates and likes doing things "the way Thai people do" them. Why I think she subconsciously cooperated with him is because she told me later that was how she moved her things when she moved to Bangkok from Betong a few years ago. Wake up, David. Why pay for freight when you can simply scam the system? That's what Thais do.

It worked out pretty well in the end.  It took two separate taxis to get us with our boxes to the station in Bangkok but taxis in The Big Mango are cheap -- 60 baht apiece. And in Chiang Mai Nut found a friendly songtaew driver who took us to our apartment for 200 baht.  Overall I think the move, not including our own railroad fares, cost us about 20 bucks.

We've just now bought a few pieces of furniture including a desk and chair for me, and a nice wood dining table and chairs. We no longer have to eat picnic style on the floor. We're pretty comfortable in our place and the northern weather is just about perfect this time of year. Consequently, I'm back to playing tennis again and although I'm rusty and out of shape I'm enjoying it. And I'm getting to know some other farangs with whom I have shared interests -- tennis and our Thai sweethearts.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Apartment hunting in Chiang Mai

Nut and I have been in Chiang Mai for about a week now looking for a new place to rent. I must say, apartment hunting here in comparison to the many times in my past when I've done it, is a piece of cake. There's much to choose from and rents are low. Of course, we're looking for the most common type of rental available, a furnished one room studio. If you want something other than this, say a two room apartment, you're out of luck -- they're rare or nonexistent. We found a brand new furnished studio with brand new furniture the other day and have just signed the papers. We were tempted by several very appealing houses also on the rental market but they were either too far from town for Nut, who has no transportation once I go back to the states, or, because they need to be fully furnished, too expensive for my budget at this stage. This place isn't perfect: it's in a big building and we're on the 4th floor but it has covered parking for the bike, a guard at the gate and an elevator. It's bigger than our old place and it's situated in the northern latitudes where it's so cool in the evenings that Nut shivers when she gets out of the shower.

This apartment will end up costing about the same as our place in Bangkok, that is, about 5,000 baht ($150 USD) per month. For me, living here only six or seven months a year, that's a very affordable amount even if I end up renting a place in the states after I return, although the way things are playing out right now that seems unlikely. For many years I've wondered where I would choose to live were I to pull up stakes in Alaska. That question has remained unanswered because I've never found any place in the lower 48 that I like well enough to relocate to and that I could afford on my retirement income. I wouldn't mind a stint in San Francisco, or the Adirondack Mountains, for example, but most places are too expensive, too cold, or too whatever for me. Besides being expensive American cities are by and large too crowded with strip malls, fast food joints and office parks for my taste. And what rural area down there could possibly compare with my neighborhood in Alaska?

One answer is to retire in Thailand. I suppose in some ways, I already have. When I think of grocery stores I don't think of Safeway or Star Market but Tang Hua Seng or Foodland or Big C. My neighborhood scene is heavy on temples not churches and it feels normal to drive on the left. I can whistle along with several popular Thai songs that play repeatedly on the soaps Nut loves. The Channel 3 News theme bounces annoyingly through my head from time to time during the day. My new favorite yogurt is Meiji Low-fat Mango and I have leaned to drink Chang beer in lieu of those lamentably absent and delicious Oregon IPAs I love.

On a more personal level, my relationship with Nut feels good and solid, the winter climate here at 18 degrees north is near perfect, I love the Thai culture and Thai food, and I can afford to live fairly well as long as the exchange rate stays favorable. I'm comfortable here and my anxiety level is low. What's not to like about that?

If in the future I decide to spend the majority of the year here there are other more attractive rental options. Take a look at these two houses please. This first one is not new but has been beautifully maintained. Fresh paint was evident on the wood windows and fascia. It has 2 bedrooms and 2 baths, is located in a quiet residential neighborhood and is renting for 10,000 baht per month, about $320 USD. The big drawback for this type of deal is that most houses are unfurnished and would demand a substantial investment in furniture and other housewares up front.

Rental house in the Chiang Mai Land area
And look at this gem we found while cruising around east of the Ping River just off Fa Ham Road the other day. This house is brand new, has never been lived in, and is in an older neighborhood that boasts several huge mansions and even a foreign embassy (Peru). Quiet, woodsy, and in the city, it rents for only 15,000 baht (under $500 USD) per month. We didn't look inside either of these but I'll bet they're very nicely appointed with tile everywhere and spotlessly clean.

Rental home near the Peruvian Embassy in Chiang Mai

Pretty damn nice. I don't know why this particular area has such an unusual mix of opulent homes, empty overgrown lots, and new construction but it's a pretty cool neighborhood. Tennis, good restaurants and the old city are just a short hop away.

Anyway. We're moved here from our hotel and are spending our first night in the new place. It's quiet and cool. It's a fine place to live until something better shows up.