I’ve been staying up here for a week now, and I still haven’t grown too accustomed to the plant life in people’s gardens to miss the beauty. It’s not tropical, it’s desert. Desert plants, probably native to Mexico, are what are being cultivated up here, and they’re weirdly striking compared to the tropical plants I’m used to seeing in Thailand.
It’s been two and a half years since I’ve been back in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was always an expensive place to live, but now that I’ve been living in Thailand for two years, and South America for a year before that, I am stunned by chronic sticker shock at simply being here. I’m afraid to leave my brother’s house, for fear of being bankrupted before I can find my way back home where living within my means is not only possible but easy.
Driven by halitosis and headache, I ventured forth to a nearby drugstore to buy toothpaste and aspirin but after looking at the prices, almost left without either. Most of the toothpaste choices were housed in cartons with elaborate, colorful printing complete with holographic stickers. I’m sure the packaging cost at least as much as the carton contents, and the combined cost of those two came to about seven dollars for the average tube. This was about seven times what I was prepared to pay.
Likewise, the bottles of aspirin that they were pushing ranged from eight to thirteen dollars. I finally found one with “normal” 340 mg tablets, which can be divided by four into the dose I take for a blood thinner. The coated 81 mg tablets cost twice as much as the ones I bought. But it was hard to find that bottle of “normal” aspirin, as it was crowded out by the fancier versions of a simple, inexpensive drug that lacks the sex appeal of its enteric-coated brethren. I had to kneel on the floor to select that bottle from the bottom shelf.
As expensive as everyday items are, rents are much higher. The average rent here is between two and three thousand dollars a month! Any less than that and it’s a bargain, protected by rent control. In Mae Rim Thailand, I’m paying $110 a month for a small house. I don’t have a car and drive a motor scooter around, often sightseeing in the nearby glorious mountains. I never visit a supermarket, because fresh and prepared foods are available everywhere, for prices so low that I no longer bother to ask the price of anything I eat.
If I were to try to live in America, I would have to find a place with subsidized housing, free lunches, senior discounts, a place where nobody else wanted to live, probably for good reason.I’d have to apply for food stamps. But I would be hard pressed to find anywhere even remotely as attractive as Mae Rim, where lunch costs $1 and where noodle shops abound.
This is our second time here, five months later, during low season. There’s no one around! Miles of pristine beach, inexpensive bungalows only yards from the water, cute little railroad station right in town…and I think there may be ten other tourists here. It’s not even hot. We have air con, but it’s off half the time. Rain sprinkles every few hours for a few minutes. It’s low season all over the country, but this place is just as nice as it was five months ago, when we first came here to escape the smoke and haze in the North.
We rented a motor scooter for one day and bicycles for the other two. Got to get out of town but there’s just more of the same out there, a few dramatic hills covered with trees, probably limestone jutting up forming the border with Burma, just like it does 500 miles north to Laos. There’s really no where to go that’s not already here. Those oddly shaped hills, combined with the palm and banana trees, combine to send a strong “we’re not in Iowa anymore” to this photographer.
The people are extraordinarily friendly and seem truly happy. Even the young people don’t seem as addicted to their cell phones as they do in Bangkok. At least at our hotel, wi-fi seems OK, and the few coffee shops all have it, but I guess it’s just a wire running down along the railroad tracks.
The train comes four times a day, and two are air-conditioned second-class cars with reclining seats. Fare from Bangkok was about $14 per person. The un-airconditioned trains charge much less, about $2.50. The trip takes about five and a half hours.
As with most of Thailand, it seems that the main business here is agriculture. Here it’s not so much rice as it is coconuts and vegetables. Fishing boats at night line the horizon at sea, glowing green. I think they’re mostly catching squid.
I most parts of the world, people pay a premium to stay on the seashore, but here the room is about $21 and meals are about $2 each. I guess everybody goes to Phuket or Krabi where the scenery is more dramatic and there’s wave action. The water here in the Andaman sea is like the gulf of Mexico. No surfing or diving here. It’s quite shallow until you walk out about a hundred yards.
Maybe the reason nobody’s here is because most people equate a seaside vacation with nightlife. There certainly isn’t any of that here. You can go to the 7-11 after dark and see all the motorcycles parked in front. There’s a mini Tesco Lotus convenience store opposite, just to keep “seven” as they call it here, from having a monopoly.
THE MAE SA VALLEY AND MON JAM
Only a few miles from our new home in Mae Rim, the Mae Sa valley runs between the backside of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui, and another range to the west. This was once a prime opium producing area in Thailand. Now it is home to a mixture of vegetable and fruit farming, usually on terraces, and tourism, though there aren’t nearly as many guest houses or coffee shops as one might expect this close to Chiang Mai.
At the very top is a Hmong village called Mon Jam, and a coffee shop which overlooks the next valley, which was filled with clouds when we arrived and looked like nothing so much as Shangri-La. It was also quite chilly up there. When people see my photos of this area they assume it’s hot, fetid and full of bugs, but at least this time of year, rainy season, it’s not at all that way.