Wat Phra Baht Nam Phlu, a.k.a. AIDS/HIV Temple

Past the endless fields of sprawling corn stalks; past the hillsides which overstate their humble height against the flattened surrounding landscape; past the ornate temple gate; past the hand-carved wooden dining gazebos lined against the hillside as if awaiting a fireworks show; past the rows of quaint white bungalows with clothing drying on porches that nearly double their size; past piles of construction materials heaving under the heat waiting to be actualized into functional structures; past the small golden image of the Buddha flanked by red-lettered “AIDS” and “HIV” on each side; past the hundreds of stray dogs fawning, yawning, scratching and scurrying in the afternoon’s languor; we wind our car through Wat Phra Baht Nam Phlu’s impressive grounds.

Tanned men in yellow polo shirts aid our arrival in various ways. This one with the pot belly gives us directions. That one with the sallow cheeks helps us park. The third one missing his front teeth walks stiffly around the grounds as our tour guide. They are the able-bodied patients of the temple—victims of a virus vastly misunderstood who are determined not to allow their illness to relegate them to a cot.


Our first stop was the donation center, where we inquired whether we could look around. They welcomed us to, asking that we only agree not to take pictures of the patients. The idea that a person’s suffering could somehow be a tourist attraction to some visitors tied a knot in my stomach. Of course not, I said.

Inside the donation center: images of the head monk, who first envisioned turning the temple into an AIDS/HIV clinic and hospice center, are found everywhere; next to his picture is an image of Budai (or Pu-Tai in Thai), a bodhisattva typically associated with financial prosperity; in front of these images are donation slips which Pao filled out in Thai.



We visited the patient wards. According to a chart in the window of the hospital nurses’ office, there were 104 male patients, including nine monks, and 40 female patients, for a grand total of 144 patients. As we approached the entrance to the hospital, an adolescent boy in a wheelchair and orange monk-like robes was laughing as a man in his forties, who appeared healthier than most of the other patients, was teetering the boy’s wheelchair rapidly back and forth. Beyond them was another teenage patient sitting on a bench. As we approached they stopped playing and wai’d us, saying, “Sawadee klahp! (Hello!).” We smiled and returned the greeting. The boy in the wheelchair looked at me and said, “Thank you for coming!”

We went into the male ward. There were about eighteen to twenty hospital beds in the room. Each bed resembled a private nest lined with personal possessions—blankets, baskets with pens and medicine, books, notebooks, bottles, and other items of personal importance. These beds were where most of these patients spent their days. Many of them hadn’t the strength to leave them. Every man wore a diaper. Their legs were shriveled and their stomachs bloated. A few of the men were blind. Others were discolored. On one side of the ward were refrigerators, a large flat screen TV, and other community appliances like water kettles and cutlery.

After standing in the room for a minute, we suddenly became aware of their awareness of us. Feeling as though we were treating them as zoo exhibits, we wai’d and left the room.

We went into the female ward. Their room was smaller. A larger proportion of the patients were up and about. And their beds were more elaborately decorated. One woman had a giant Winnie the Pooh sitting atop her pastel mountain of personal possession. I paid closer attention to what these patients had to call theirs. One woman had a small film camera. Another had a heating pad to sit on. Their clothing was more varied and more neatly organized into their bed-homes.

Pao talked to a few of the women. She verified that there are a few nurses and a couple doctors on site. One doctor was a foreigner, said one woman, smiling enthusiastically at me. Another woman talked to Pao about what her day to day life was like. She explained that the temple provides them with plenty of food and opportunities to earn a small income. At the same time, it is a limited life, especially if you don’t have the energy levels to work for the temple. She has to go to the local hospital routinely for medical treatment, and likes to buy fruit and other food outside the hospital—food which the temple doesn’t usually have. To buy these, she needs her own money, which she often doesn’t have. She explained that many of the patients appreciate a small amount of personal donation so that they can enjoy these little “luxuries” on their excursions outside the temple.

We asked her, and other patients, a bit about their story—how did they end up at the temple? One lady had gotten AIDS/HIV from unclean tattoo needles many years ago. Our toothless tour guide got it from his mother at birth. So did the boy in the wheelchair. In fact, many of the patients did not get it from sexual promiscuity—an assumption often associated with AIDS/HIV.

Throughout much of Thailand, AIDS/HIV has a stigma that stems largely from ignorance. Many people, especially from older generations and from rural parts, believe that it can be contracted from the air, that merely being around a person with AIDS/HIV puts you at risk of getting it yourself. Many people don’t know how it is spread, nor that free medication is available to treat it. When a Thai person gets AIDS/HIV, they are too often an outcast—they are put out from their home and shunned by their families. Wat Phra Baht Nam Phlu provides a loophole: family members feel morally justified in leaving their undesirables because the temple will provide a spiritual cleansing before death.

Therefore, the patients we met were victims not only of a terrible disease, but also of an obstinate stigma surrounding that disease. They were at the temple to die alone, with no one to visit them or support them emotionally or financially. That’s why many of them lit up when we came into their ward giving out small amounts of cash to each person. We approached each patient and gave him/her a small allowance of 40 baht—not much, but enough to bring light and gratitude to their eyes. Some of the patients lacked the strength or eyesight to reach out for the money, so we gently wedged it between their feeble fingers.


We owe a huge gratitude to our friends and family for helping us make the donations we made. Between the individual patient donations and a lump sum at the donation center, we were able to give a little over 20,000 baht. We gave a little extra to our tour guide and the forty-something man for assisting us. Then we climbed the stairs to visit the large buddha at the top of the hill. With our descent, we ended our visit and left the temple.


From our observations and interviews with patients, we feel satisfied that they are getting the best possible care and support in spite of a stigma that makes them social outcasts. We hope that the temple can also start making efforts towards educating the community about AIDS/HIV, especially with regards to how to treat its victims with dignity.

Thank you to everyone who supported this effort!


This is the prayer you are supposed to say when you make a donation.

Breaking up a fight

Wednesdays are my favorite days at work. My teaching schedule is such that I don’t have class until 11:30 in the morning. So I usually take the bulk of the morning to catch up on either work or errands. And if those are caught up, I spend the morning reading, writing, or watching something on Netflix. Today, I needed to get my motorbike washed. Luckily, there is a place across from the school with a cafe next to it. So I thought I’d get the bike washed, fill up on caffeine, and work on progress reports due in about 3 weeks (don’t get me started on those).

As I was driving through campus, I saw a seventh-grade boy throw a pencil case at a girl. Thai kids can be very physical in their expression, so I’ve grown accustomed to shrugging these gestures off. But then he threw his book at her.

I stopped the motorbike and parked it right there, next to the students, who were standing in the campus road (also something I’ve grown accustomed to).

Once I took my helmet off, they knew I was a teacher. I could see they wanted to scatter. “Come here,” I said to them.

Fortunately, Thai kids are extremely respectful. So now that the order had been given, they wouldn’t dare run off. Instead they waied and said, “Sorry, teacher.”

But that wasn’t good enough for me. “Why did you throw your stuff at her?”

Silence. Not as much from guilt, but from a limitation in language. Other students who had crowded around interpreted and helped the boy with the right language. “She say bad thing.”

“What did she say?”

More interpretation and discussion. “She say I’m ladyboy.”

Suppressing my amusement, I turned to the girl, who was fuming at this accusation. “Is this true? Did you call him a ladyboy?” She nodded, steam rising from her head. “Why?”

“Because he say bad about my skin!” she pointed to her arm.

I’ve lived in Thailand long enough to know what he said. But I continued to play detective. I turned to the boy. “What did you say about her skin?” I asked, pointing to my arm.

Translation and discussion. I heard the Thai word for black which confirmed my suspicion. “I say she black.”

It’s worth explaining here that when Thai people say black, they mean tanned. And if you don’t understand Thai culture, or Asian culture in general, tanned skin is generally considered undesirable. Rich, high-born Thais do business indoors and languish in their shaded courts. Peasants work the fields and get a tan. So even though the insult seems silly, especially given that the skin tones of the two students was nearly the same, for the girl it was a remark about her beauty and her status.

“Why did you say that to her?”

He understood the question, but was now too embarrassed to answer. He looked at me sheepishly and bowed slightly, saying, “Sorry, teacher.”

“Don’t say sorry to me. Say it to her.”

“Sorry,” he said to her, somewhat half-heartedly.

“Say it in Thai. Say it like you mean it.”

He muttered an apology in Thai. I know enough Thai to know he actually apologized politely.

“Good.” I turned to the girl. “Is it right to call him a ladyboy because he calls you black?”

“No. But I angry.”

“I know. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to be angry. Do you understand?” She nodded. “Say sorry to him.”

She waied and choked out an apology in Thai, though I could see she resented it.

I asked their names and classrooms. Then I warned them that if I ever saw them fighting again I’d take them to a Thai teacher. It was clear that they preferred my soft American mediation to the beating they’d probably receive from my local counterpart. The threat to involve a Thai teacher struck fear in them. They both waied again, and ran off.

As I continued my short trip to the car wash, I couldn’t help but think This is Thailand.

Singing in the Rain

It’s Foreign Languages Day here at The Prince Royal’s College in Chiang Mai, Thailand–a gathering of five schools to compete in various English activities. There are debates, spelling bees, speech contests, storytelling contests, and singing contests. The last of these is really the focus of my story, but let me set the scene first.

I had just finished judging the debates, which had run late due to usual Thai chaos and lack of communication. I was exhausted, but relieved that my judging duties  were finished.

But despite simultaneous public events all centered around the building next to mine–Foreign Languages Day, ASEAN Day, Harris Institute Open House, and Childrens’ Book Fair–I still had to hold my dreaded Normal Program English class. This was a class full of sweet students with obvious learning disabilities (if one wants to count apathy as a learning disability). Amid the noise of various speaker systems blaring music and the bedlam of students running around haphazardly, I was not looking forward to teaching a class that, on a normal, distraction-free day, couldn’t be bothered to pay attention.

I approached the classroom, opened the door, and groans of disapproval filled the air. It was as if I had just told them they were to clean up after all the festivities. They stared at me with that “Really?” kind of look, amazed that I was actually going to try to teach them.

Just then, thunder cracked. Without any buildup, a torrent fell upon Chiang Mai. To call it rain would be too mild. The downpour was so thick and heavy that visibility was limited to about 40 feet. The weight and size of each drop were so large that awnings abandoned their intended utility and left soaked their refugees underneath. Within minutes, small floods of water formed on a ground that couldn’t absorb the angry sky’s abuse fast enough.

“Class is cancelled today,” I announced.

Cheers filled the room. Many in the class, though, did not understand even that much English, and looked around bewildered as their sharper peers rejoiced. It didn’t take long for them to get the idea. As I walked out of the classroom, stepping carefully so as not to slip on a newly rain-soaked (yet covered) walkway, one girl burst out of the classroom yelling, “Tea-CHAAAA!”

I spun around.

“I love you!” she said, holding up the classic hand symbol with the thumb, index, and pinky fingers extended. I smiled and continued back to my office.

I wanted footage of nature’s power. So I started filming from the same walkway where my classrooms were. I walked up the walkway further, trying to capture every angle of the tempest from my relatively dry vantage point.

Just as I was finishing the video, I heard music coming from just down the stairs near me. It was very distinctly a recorded track with a student’s live vocals. Then I remembered the singing contest. But I also recognized the tune. Was this not-more-than-fifteen-year-old student singing, publicly, for a school contest, Bruno Mars’s “Versace on the Floor”?

I want down the stairs to see. Sure enough, a ninth grader from Dara Academy was timidly singing, “Let’s just kiss till we’re naked, baby.”

Stifling my laughter, I looked at the judges. As a rule, all judges have to be native speakers of English. I looked over and saw several colleagues of mine simultaneously looking very serious and official while also stealing glances at each other. I’d seen those glances before in my students just moments earlier: “Really?”

I had to keep watching. It’s warming up. “Can you feel it?” It’s warming up. “Can you FEEEEEL it?” It’s warming up. “CAN YOU FEEL IT BABY?”

I chuckled to myself and returned to my office. Nothing screams Thailand education better than an innocent Thai junior high schooler singing a very sexual song, the lyrics to which she probably didn’t entirely understand, belying the probable lack of supervision she received in preparing for the contest, while foreign judges look on in absolute wonder.

My Complete 180 on Uber


I have done a complete 180 with regards to my opinion of Uber. I used to mildly dislike them. From various conversations with Uber drivers, and from a few videos and articles, I have become aware of an employment structure that essentially exploits drivers to offer competitive pricing for transportation. Uber is part of the sharing economy, a trend in business that shares everything but liability. The whole concept of the sharing economy is suspicious to me in principle. Companies profit off non-employees who are willing to use their own property, skills, or expertise to make a bit of extra cash, and refuse to pay much more than a commission for it. And if something goes awry, it’s not their problem.

Moreover, Uber is particularly nefarious in its quite obvious goal of taking giant losses in order to aggressively battle for market share amidst rapid worldwide expansion. I’ve always seen them as the Wal-Mart of transportation—not necessarily in the quality of the service, but in the strategy of undercutting all the competition until the competitors have to close shop, thereby leaving a monopoly.

In the same way Midwestern towns have lost their thriving main streets to Wal-Mart, with communities being deprived of options in both shopping and employment, Uber could very well become the only taxi business in most cities, leaving riders and drivers alike with little else to turn to. If Uber succeeds in the way Wal-Mart has in monopolizing markets, they will be able to set the conditions and pricing for transportation in those markets.

In essence, my suspicions towards Uber are motivated by a long and deeply felt need to defend the “little guy”—that is, currently existing taxi drivers who pay the licensing fees (which Uber bypasses) as well as the drivers that Uber refuses to pay benefits to. These suspicions have made me wary of Uber, and thus reluctant to use their services on principle alone.

And so, when Uber came to Chiang Mai two months ago, I was leery. Chiang Mai doesn’t need more American corporations diluting their beautiful culture and atmosphere with mediocrity and greed, I thought.

But other expats didn’t share that sentiment. They were all too eager to start using Uber to get around town. And I recently learned why.

My mother came to visit. I don’t normally need fare-based transit, as I have a motorbike that I share with my girlfriend. But with three people now needing transportation, the bike was insufficient (we weren’t about to do it the Thai way and ride three to a bike). So I started talking to tuk-tuk drivers. My mom and I wanted to go to Sunday Night Walking Street, the night market that extends from Tha Pae Gate. From her hotel, it was a 4-km trip. At 9pm.

So I asked a tuk-tuk driver how much. 180 baht. I’d taken tuk-tuks from my girlfriend’s bar to my apartment—an 8-km trip—for that price. So clearly this was negotiable. “One hundred twenty,” I said in Thai.

“One hundred eighty,” he repeated, in English.

“That’s too expensive,” I said in Thai. “One hundred fifty.”

He waved me off. “Traffic jam,” he said.

Bullshit, I thought. But it was getting late and this was the only Sunday night my mother would be in town, and I really wanted her to experience Sunday Night Walking Street. “Fine,” I said.

At nine o’clock at night, the only traffic we hit was literally right in front of our destination. I angrily paid the bullshitter his fare and we got out.

We enjoyed walking around Sunday Night Walking Street, and some time between 10 and 11pm many vendors were starting to close up. So we went back to Tha Pae Gate, where tuk-tuks were lined up. This time I wasn’t being had. I went to the furthest tuk-tuk from the gate. He quoted me 200 baht. “Too expensive,” I said in Thai.

“Traffic jam,” he said.

“No traffic,” I said. “One hundred fifty.”

“Traffic jam. One hundred eighty.”

“Fine.” I should have walked away. I knew better. There were 10 other tuk-tuks around and I probably could have worked my way into a tuk-tuk for 120. But maybe not. The problem was this was high season. With so many tourists, most tuk-tuk drivers know they’ll get the fare they’re asking for eventually.

Four kilometers and zero traffic later, and we were pulling up to my mom’s hotel. I got out and looked at the tuk-tuk driver. “So much traffic,” I said.

He laughed.

“I’ll give you one hundred fifty, and no more.”

“Up to you,” he smiled.

The next day, we needed another ride. It was a gorgeous day and I thought my mother would enjoy a walk around the moat. The northwestern corner of the moat—the corner nearest to her hotel—was only a kilometer and a half away. Surely a tuk-tuk ride wouldn’t be too much. So we talked to one in front of her hotel. “One hundred fifty,” he said.

“Huh? No! Only one kilometer!”

My girlfriend was with us this time. She started working her native tongue, negotiating him down. Here we go, this will get us a cheaper ride. We’re Thai now.

Body language wasn’t looking promising, though. “He says there’s heavy traffic,” my girlfriend finally told me.

“It’s always heavy traffic with these guys,” my mom retorted.

“It’s ok,” I said. “We’ll take Uber.”

I had hoped hearing the name of the newest competitor in town would manipulate him into acquiescing to our will. I was wrong. “Up to you,” he said, and went back to sleep.

My mother was flabbergasted. “He’s gonna let us walk?”

“He’ll get one-fifty from some sucker. Not us, but someone will pay it eventually,” I said.

This is the way of the tuk-tuk driver. They sit on their ass all day nodding off lazily into profitless slothfulness, and then try to make up for it by overcharging naïve tourists for easy trips around the city. They seem to be quite aware at how novel a tuk-tuk ride is for most tourists. The unwary tourist sometimes even squeals with delight at such a nifty way to get around town. And so they pay anything. They don’t know the city, so they believe the line about traffic. And honestly, where else are they going to turn for transportation? Songthaews which charge more? Taxis which are hard to come by? Buses that were all but driven out of Chiang Mai years ago by the tuk-tuk and songthaew mafias…uh…I mean “cooperatives”?

So we got into our first Uber car in Chiang Mai. American corporations are good for at least one thing: consistency. The only difference between Uber Chiang Mai and Uber San Francisco was that this driver was a little shy about speaking English. Otherwise, we rode a clean, semi-luxurious, air-conditioned sedan, driven by a polite and friendly driver who, like her American counterparts, seemed all too pleased with the chance to earn an extra buck or two driving around her own city.

And the fare? A measly 25 baht. I more than doubled the fare with my tip, giving her 60 baht in cash, and giving myself the peace of mind that she was adequately compensated for her efforts.

So let’s do a quick comparison. In Chiang Mai, you can either ride in a welded, uncomfortable motor-trike in the open air, driven by a lazy alcoholic/drug addict, for 150 baht. Or you can ride in a commercially produced vehicle that passed international safety standards in the air-conditioned comfort of the backseat of a sedan, driven by a self-respecting individual who is proud to earn extra money, for 60 baht (if you’re a generous tipper). For a rider, it’s a no-brainer. For an Uber driver, if enough people pay it forward like I do, it’s also a win.

Since that pivotal day, I’ve taken five Uber trips. Every single one was a positive experience that cost me a fraction of what tuk-tuks would charge, despite paying 50-100% tips. The drivers all spoke enough English to chat with me at least a little bit.

The last driver spoke enough to discuss global politics. We also talked about the Uber experience, his and mine. He’s putting three daughters through university on a combination of his salary as a bureaucrat and his earnings with Uber. He enjoys Uber so much that he calls it his hobby. I asked him how he could possibly enjoy driving around the city picking up passengers. He replied that he wants to learn to speak English better, and the 10 to 20 tourists a night that he drives around give him ample opportunities to practice. “Instead pay money for tutor, I learn and earn,” he laughed.

We also talked about Uber’s grab at the international scene. I mentioned the taxi strikes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He said the same thing happened in Phuket, and that the tuk-tuk mafia is just as strong in Chiang Mai. “We’ll see how long Uber stays in Chiang Mai,” he said.

The Late King Bhumibol Adulyadej

This year has been a rough year in terms of losing beloved icons. 

Think of the celebrities who passed away this year. Now concentrate on the one you loved and will miss the most.

Remember how you felt in the moment you learned he/she died. Remember both the personal feeling of loss, as well as the intellectual grief that saw the vacuum they left.

Now imagine that you were raised from the time you could speak to say that person’s name with reverence. Imagine that from the time you first packed your vinyl Mario Bros or Disney Princess backpack and headed off to school, you were taught that this person was akin to a parent. In fact, this person was greater than a parent. A parent is a mere human, but this person is like a god—benevolent and dedicated to your well-being. You have never bought or sold anything with handling images of this person. Every week at school, you sing a song written by and dedicated to that person, and rise for that same song before every movie you watch in theatres. Imagine that this person is the very fabric of your society, the very definition of your culture, and the very center of your nation’s stability and order.

This is the connection most Thais feel towards the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

It took me some time to appreciate and sympathize with this depth of feeling. The disconnect I felt with Thai grief was due in part to the fact that I’ve never felt a great loss at the passing of any famous stranger. Moreover, I had allowed myself to read the unofficial history of his life—which includes the forbidden criticisms of his legacy. It’s hard to appreciate a man’s accomplishments when you learn of his secret frustrations.

I first learned of the king’s passing while on a short return visit to the U.S. I remember being unsurprised, as there were prior reports of failing health, but still gasping at the implications. In my mind, it felt like Yeats’s “Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The political implications of Thailand’s stabilizing father passing on were not lost on me.

Where I was taken aback was in Thailand’s extreme response. Thailand’s response to tragedy is always a bit less than measured. And from my understanding from abroad, it seemed Thailand was overreacting. Bars were closed, costing people like my girlfriend precious income. Celebration of any kind was forbidden; so public music was unofficially banned. The people, Thais and foreigners alike, were urged not to wear bright colors. Anyone criticizing the king was violently dragged to their knees before his portrait and coerced into apologies and respect.

 I scoffed. I raged.

Then I flew back.

As I flew, I pondered the king’s impact on the lives of his subjects. I pondered their abject loyalty and devotion. Suddenly I started to understand.

To help me make that leap to empathize with Thai people who would insist that the world stop rotating for a year just so that they can process their grief, I thought of a world leader that I greatly revere: President Obama. 

Before you scoff, let me justify my choice. Overall, I am proud of his accomplishments as president. He doesn’t represent the radical shift to the left that my fellow progressives had hoped for, but he possesses, at the very least, an intellectual poise and personal charisma that strong leaders are made of. In many ways, he’s analogous to the late king in that very fact—he has a cult of personality that numbs many valid criticisms. Intellectually, I’m unsatisfied with his presidency, but emotionally, I just fucking love the guy. Some would point out the blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. I’m quick to wave it away and ask what world leader doesn’t have blood on his hands. Had Obama died tragically (but not assassinated—that’s quite a different scenario), I’m sure the grief and loss I’d feel would be akin to what Thais feel now.

When I returned, there was a noticeably different atmosphere in Thailand. It was quiet. The nights were darker. A great majority of people carried on with their lives, but more calmly and wearing black. And it all seemed…appropriate. After all, their father, their demi-god, their second Buddha, their caretaker, their center, their leader, their light, their constant, and, most crucially, their hope: these had all left them in the passing of one figure.

Mourning the king isn’t just about mourning a celebrity. It isn’t about mourning a political figure, either. And it isn’t simply about mourning a beloved father. Thailand now mourns the loss of perhaps its greatest stabilizing force during the 20th century, the one constant through seven decades of military coupes and constant constitutional reconstruction. The king modernized his country and prioritized sustainable development before it was ever a buzzword. He believed that his reign represented the truest form of democracy, elevated above any parliament or senate, because he was the greatest power of Thailand with an ear bent toward the will of his subjects. His seemingly endless royal projects testify to his responsiveness to Thailand’s multifarious needs. 

In effect, Thailand mourns the death of a benevolent god, the essence of their national identity.

A Tale of Two Cities, Part 2

The following is a continuation of my lengthy comparison of Chiang Mai and Pattaya. Newcomers, see Part 1.


7-Elevens versus Temples

Once upon a time, Chiang Mai and Pattaya met together for a few drinks. After getting will lubricated with liquor, Chiang Mai lost a bit of her usual class and accused Pattaya of being a bit slut. She added, “I mean, you don’t even have but—what?—four temples? I’ve got hundreds of temples. So there!”

Pattaya replied, “Yeah, well for every temple you’ve got, I’ve got a 7-Eleven, a Family Mart, and a Tesco Express!”

“Impossible!” said Chiang Mai. “I’ve got hundreds of temples—more than anyone could possibly visit in a year. If a person were to feel truly pious, they could literally visit a different one every week!”

“Well,” retorted Pattaya, “At least none of my residents need to go more than fifty meters to buy a pack of smokes, a bottle of Chang, and a condom!”

“You are a slut!”

“And you’re a prude, holier-than-thou bitch!”

Pattaya grabbed Chiang Mai’s hair and shit got real.

They haven’t spoken to each other since.


In summary, whereas in Pattaya 7-Eleven puts Starbucks to shame with their proliferation, in Chiang Mai they’re quite a bit rarer. In fact, you might just pass 30 temples before you arrive at the nearest 7-Eleven. And if you don’t feel like doing that, try the neighbor. She’s converted the front half of her ground-level apartment into a little, humble convenience store.


Central Festival

As one might expect in a city entirely centered around its nightlife, daytime boredom is a real struggle in Pattaya. As a result, many residents become quite familiar with the seven-and-a-half level shopping mall known as Central Festival.

There you have a whole array of international clothing stores—the kinds of places that make their clothing in sweat shops in the neighboring countries for pennies a day, then ship them to Hong Kong, then import them into Thailand with duty taxes.

But if you’re not into buying a dress or a pair of jeans at three times the price of what you’d find in the local markets (but at twice the quality, it must be said), you can eat at one of the dozens of overpriced Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and American chain restaurants. Most people go there for SF Cinema City, which is arguably the best cinema in town.

However, the real attraction is the many retirees walking hand-in-hand with their granddaughters’ Thai peers. Ogle the beautiful, tanned, skinny Thai girls, then look at their senile boyfriend and lose the sushi you downed only moments earlier.

Central Festival isn’t unique to Pattaya. It’s sort of like Westfield shopping malls (for you SoCal residents). And so there’s one in Chiang Mai, too. It’s older and smaller, but it still features the same international chain stores and restaurants, and it still has a state-of-the-art cinema on the top floor.

The one palpable distinction between Central Festival Pattaya and Central Festival Chiang Mai is the demographic. In Chiang Mai, malls feel like malls in America: hundreds of teenagers wandering its floors aimlessly in the rare escape from home and school that it affords them. There aren’t addled pensioners twitching in the arms of their juvenile partners. Only innocent mallrats killing time and not finishing the homework assignment I gave them two weeks ago.



Sorry, Chiang Mai residents, but I scoff at your complaints about traffic and the driving habits of people in Chiang Mai. Pattaya is far worse, with hundreds of drunk tourists who think they can manage a motorcycle even though they’ve never driven one before, thousands of impatient migrants from rural areas who haven’t adapted their driving habits to urban traffic, and probably millions of coach buses caterpillaring down every street and soi to show their Chinese riders the not-so-interesting part of Thailand.

Trust me: Chiang Mai is civilized compared to Pattaya.


Cafes/Beer bars

You really can’t drive anywhere in Pattaya without passing a pinkly lit open-air beer bar stacked with ladies who couldn’t get a job at the gogo bars. You can’t walk any of Pattaya’s broken sidewalks without hearing “Welcoooooooome!” or a deep-voiced “Sawadee ka!”

You really can’t drive anywhere in Chiang Mai without passing a cutely decorated café that serves subpar coffee and features overpriced Thai food and half-assed Western food.

However, the cafes do find ways to distinguish themselves, and every now and then I find one worth visiting routinely. That’s a lot more than I can say of the beer bars in Pattaya.


Friendliness of Locals

Probably the most useful generalization about these two cities goes like this: while Chiang Mai is everyone’s city, Pattaya is nobody’s.

And here’s what I mean by that:

Nobody is really from Pattaya. It’s a city full of people who have migrated there seeking the rich opportunities that sex tourism offers to people who are poorly educated. As a result, nobody really feels responsible for the city. Nobody seems to regard themselves as the city’s caretakers or stewards. And so it sags in near dilapidation. At the same time, visitors receive only a superficial welcome. There’s no pride in Pattaya, so why wash your greetings an enthusiasm for its culture?

Meanwhile, many Thais living in Chiang Mai are from Chiang Mai. They’ll be the first to brag that theirs is the best city in Thailand. And because they’re proud, they warmly welcome visitors. They usually want people to experience that special feeling that most visitors get when they come here. Chiang Mai has a character that usually stamps fondness in people’s hearts, and engraves itself strongly in their memories.



It’s not that Pattaya has bad food, nor is it that Chiang Mai necessarily has the best food in Thailand. It’s just easier to find what you want in Chiang Mai. Moreover, because Pattaya is nobody’s home, restaurants often close during holidays because their owners go back to their little villages hundreds of kilometers away.

Here’s another way to look at it. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a turkey dinner in Thailand. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a Cubano sandwich in Thailand. Until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had never had a proper burrito in Thailand. And until I moved to Chiang Mai, I had to scour the streets looking for decent Massaman or Panang curry.

The only downside to Chiang Mai’s food scene is that it can make a fella go broke real fast.  Finding those cheap Thai restaurants for locals only has proven to be difficult since my arrival here. But time should remedy that.

Oh, and seafood…I miss fresh seafood.