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.

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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.

 

Traffic

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.

 

Food

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.

Chapter 2: A Tale of Two Cities

What crawls out of a slimy slum into the cultural mecca of Northern Thailand? Well, me, as it happens. If you’ve followed my adventures closely, you’d know that my experience in Thailand, though marked with marvels at many turns, has reeked of the ripe ribaldry of my fossil fellows. The giant brothel that is Pattaya is now my past, and I have finally arrived and settled in one of Thailand’s most charming cities—Chiang Mai.

Now that I’ve taken some time off from writing and immersed myself in this new life, I’m ready to continue reporting my experiences to anyone who’ll suffer through my amateur prose. However, I think for this new chapter, I’ll skip the Lonely-Planet-esque overview of Chiang Mai. That’s been done to death. Moreover, I sense that my readership will start to include fellow residents of Chiang Mai, so I don’t think I’ll bore them with descriptions they already know.

Instead, I thought I’d do a contrast, albeit an unfair one. It’s a bit like comparing the bastards in “Game of Thrones”: totally obvious but fun nonetheless. By the time I finished it, I had written 2700+ words, and since the internet seems to think that’s too many for you to read, I broke it into three smaller pieces. The following is part 1.

 

Walking Streets

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On a semi-regular basis, I used to haunt the inglorious neon lights that washed the throng of curious pleasure-seekers in a hellish hue of reddish pink. I used to walk the gauntlet of gogo bar hostesses and street advertisers shouting their rudimentary welcomes and enticements, shoving their laminated menus of ping pong shows and short-time sex in my face as I dodged drunken tourists gazing everywhere but directly in front of them. I used to go there simply because that was where my girlfriend and her friends liked to go to let off steam, and where the best clubs in Pattaya could be found.

It was Walking Street—the most famous street in Sextown. Though it was a mess of every shade of prostitution, it was also a place where adults could have fun and drink the sun into rising.

Chiang Mai’s Walking Street is a different place. Every Sunday around 4 pm, Ratchadamnoen Road closes to Sunday Walking Street Chiang Mai, Thailandvehicles, and creates a 1.5-km stretch of shops and food stalls. When you enter Sunday Night Walking Street from Tha Phae Gate on the east side of the moat, you can stare down the makeshift market until it disappears into a haze of forever. One is hard pressed to visit every shop in every nook, cranny, and alley. Even the numerous temples along that run open their grounds to vendors. Street performers and small bands huddle in the center of the street-come-walkway and fill the market with an assortment of sounds ranging from traditional Thai music to bluesy folk rock. My favorite is a band comprised of all blind men singing original, Beatlesque compositions in both Thai and English.

And whereas most touristy locales feature twenty shops with the same twenty trinkets, Sunday Night Walking Street features vendors plying truly unique, often handcrafted items: purses made of hemp, leather patchwork vests and bags, screen-printed t-shirts designed by the vendor herself, and more. It’s an artisan’s community with items you seldom want to pass up because you may never see them anywhere else.

The difference between these Walking Streets is stark: while one exploits human sexuality and debauchery, the other celebrates human creativity.

 

Loi Kroh is Mini Pattaya

Stemming from the southbound road that borders the eastern moat is Loi Kroh, a one-way street that connects the moat to the famous Night Bazaar. The first time I drove down this road, things felt simultaneously strange and familiar. There were many open-air bars with girls dressed in short, tight dresses standing on the sidewalk watching hopefully as I passed them by. There was also a complex of cubical-sized bars each with its own pool table, with even more Thai woman looking bored as they sat at tables in front of each one. There was even a few gogo bars and massage parlors with girls wearing the not-so-typical masseuse attire.

I had stumbled upon the one pseudo red light district in Chiang Mai, and my first thought was That’s weird. The gravity of that thought and everything it implied suddenly hit me. I had left a city where all of this was normal. And I was now in a city where it was zoned in and isolated, so as not to smear the rest of the city’s reputation.

 

Party till Tomorrow

It all depends on how you define “tomorrow.” If you mean that you want to party until the sun comes up, go to Pattaya. If you’re content with calling it quits when the clock strikes midnight, marking the technical beginning of the next calendar day, then stay in Chiang Mai.

Despite nationwide laws to close at 2am, many clubs in Pattaya don’t start chasing out their clientele until the first dim rays of sunrise hit their doors. In puritanical Chiang Mai, however, bars must close at midnight, and only a few rebels remain secretly open through the infant hours of the morning.

The Closing of a Chapter with the Opening of a Book

I’ve thought of all kinds of ways to get philosophical and theoretical about what I’m about to share. Instead, I’ll let the images below speak for themselves, and speak for how proud I am to be a teacher, how blessed I’ve been to have the students I’ve had so far, and how affirmed I feel in my methodology. Because honestly, this has more emotional meaning than anything else.

Let me briefly explain the context. I’ve recently concluded one chapter of my new teaching life abroad. I’m leaving Pattaya, the city of misfit sexpats, and moving to Chiang Mai, the Oakland of Thailand, at least in terms of creativity, individuality, and cultural pride. I’m also leaving a school which serves the primary purpose of being a tax shelter for an alcohol distributor who couldn’t care less about education, and going to a school that is so focused on education it’s constantly trying to implement the latest ideas, including project-based learning. However, I also regret that I must leave some wonderful students midway through their school year.

They’re sweet, warmhearted students, as their work below will testify to, and we had quite a year together with me as their homeroom teacher. I’ve learned that compassion and empathy are a teacher’s biggest assets. I’ve learned that most students are totally perceptive of the amount of passion and care you put into their education. I’ve learned that honesty, consistency, and fairness are essential. And I’ve learned that a partnership with my students was the key strategy to get the results I desired in them. What’s wonderful about these lessons is that I learned them not by failing, but by succeeding. Sometimes we do have to learn from our failures, but I’m glad I didn’t have too many in my first year as a teacher (though I certainly had my share).

I may get into more detail about my overall approach to teaching and some of the specifics behind what I think made me successful—as well as the lessons learned from a few trips and falls along the way—in a separate article. For now, I’ll let my students do the talking, through a handmade book they tearfully gave me  on my last day.

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Expathy

If you’ve been one of my faithful readers, then you’ll know I’ve spent many words dissing the senior expats here in Pattaya. If you were my age, and you had lived in this scummy city for even a few months, you’d quickly understand why. However, I’ve always tried to be empathetic. Behind every face is a brain, and under every chest is a heart, and I value the task of trying to understand the invisible mechanisms that influence the way people behave. Although my capacity for empathy is notably limited, I think I can now stretch it towards the previous targets of my ridicule. However, to do so I’ll need a special kind of empathy; the expat empathy is a different brand, so I’ll brand it “expathy.” (It’s ok, I know it’s not as clever I want it to be.)

I decided to practice expathy recently entering one of their usual haunts—the beer bar. I started watching this one senior expat drinking with a young, lovely, little “hostess,” and I caught myself thinking, “You go, grandpa!” As condescending as that sounds, I meant it earnestly. Even though I was trying to keep my stomach contents while I watch him flirt, dance, or make out with his skinny, half-life junior, I started to imagine the road that may have led him here.

I think it’s fair to say that he’s probably had a pretty unlucky love live. It occurred to me that he might still be married, and I could judge him and feel pretty good about myself, while ignoring the fact that I’ve admittedly fantasized at least once about infidelity. Then I remembered (from my own failed experience) that marriage can be pretty rotten, a prison in which a certain vague but vital part of us gets chained to the wall and whispers for water and a sympathetic ear. I’ve also never had children, never had decades to add weight to the marriage, and never had a life that would easily confine me to the expectations of others. (In fact, I’ve tried to live outside anyone else’s prescribed narrative for me, and it’s led to successes and failures alike.)

My point is, as despicable as international infidelity is, unfaithfulness is a common problem, with a host of causes ranging from pure unchecked libidos to immense, soul-crushing dissatisfaction. And since I’ve experienced my fair share of both, I can relate on some level to the possibility that this guy is cheating on his wife. It was an alarming realization.

But then I thought that perhaps a more sympathetic backstory might be that this guy’s had his share of bad luck. Even if he was more successful—even if he probably had a lot of action in his prime—he’s only now in his autumn years begun to take life seriously.

Maybe he was once an eligible bachelor, and perhaps he wholeheartedly embraced the ideal of a mutual, heartfelt love, and pursued it in his past relationships. And perhaps he was let down enough times to reject it.

Now he lives by a pragmatic love—a love that would rather feel needed than feel adored. He dispenses with the glitter and glamor of Hollywood’s scripted romance, and turns to the economic realities of cross-cultural relationships. He accepts that there is a mutuality, even if it isn’t the ideal of mutual respect and love. He relishes taking financial care of his little brown beauty, and he’s ok with the fact that the care he receives in return isn’t one motivated by affection, but by a myriad of necessity, obligation, and gratitude.

Or maybe this expat spent so much of his younger years not taking life seriously—having a lot of fun and planning very little for the future—that now he’s realized he’s run out of luck. So he came here, where he can find an endearing Thai girl ten to twenty years younger. She’ll dote on him, care for him, give him the sex life he’s never been able to wean himself off of, and make him feel like he’s finally found someone who cares about him. Who cares if it’s a lie? Who cares if it’s a game? He’s paid the lip service and played the game plenty himself.

Or could it be that he was just a loser back in Farangland? He wasn’t very sociable—maybe he was a bit abrasive, a little off, a bit awkward, or a little bit timid. He couldn’t land a date, let alone get laid. He was never remarkably good-looking or wealthy. He’s lived his 60 some-odd years lonely, rarely sexed, scarcely loved, and hardly accepted. Here, he’s still lonely, but he can go out and pay a pittance to get attention, feigned affection, and some action. For once, women will talk to him, and it doesn’t really matter to him that he had to show his bill roll first.

Or maybe he had little success with women back home simply because he couldn’t progress ideologically. The young, submissive, subservient Thai girl represents his ideal woman. He could never delicately dance his man dance in a feminist world. When your life begins with a load of privileges that slowly get stripped away in an equalizing world, suddenly it’s more difficult to find a woman who can respect you, let alone love you.

Unable to cope with the fairness that feminism seeks to usher in to society, he relocated. He found a place where women are far from equal to men in the eyes of society, a place where a woman’s only hope for an easy life is to acquiesce to the chauvinism of a rich older man, a place where a good woman is defined as one who takes on all domestic tasks and serves her man at every turn. Such a place is Thailand, and its epitome is Pattaya.

When I arrived at this final scenario, and thought about how well that describes so many of the men (young and old) I’ve met here, my expathy came to a grinding hault. I couldn’t bring myself to pity a man who exploits the limited economic options of women in a developing country that epitomizes gender inequality.

I’ve seen too often that men come here viewing women as a commodity, as a trophy that they’re duty-bound to keep “polishing.” For example, I know one young girl who was weary of the life working in a short-time bar (basically a brothel that fronts as a small bar, where women have some autonomy about who their clients are). So she took up the offer of one of her older, richer customers when he offered to “rescue” her from the bar and give her a good life. But along with the security, house, and Mercedes came mandatory breast implants, a nose job, and a membership at the gym. He tells her she’s too fat, or getting too pale, and she must improve her appearance to his liking. And that isn’t the half of their so-called “relationship.”

I keep trying to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. I keep trying to show expathy whenever I can. But then I remember examples like the one above, and I’m deflated. But at least I keep trying.

Pattaya Cribs (Video)

For almost a year now, people have requested that I start posting videos instead of just writing about my time here. To be honest, I don’t like making videos. Wordsmithing is much more enjoyable an art than video editing. But because I love my faithful readers, I’ll give you want. And the topic of this post couldn’t be any more appropriate for video format. Enjoy the brief tour of my humble lodgings in Pattaya. (By the way, iMovie sucks ass.)

Happy Birthday to ME!

November 2015.

Despite my beard and stubborn little gut, there’s still an 8-year-old boy inside me that once a year wants to jump on the nearest table, put on a paper-coned hat, and shout, “It’s my birthday! What’d you get me?”

But my learned social composure and 32-year-old crow’s feet always keep me from making a scene. Luckily for the little despondent birthday boy inside, however, Thai people have cultivated a more subtle way to get attention.

“Anyone want pizza for lunch?” I blurted in the teacher’s lounge moments before morning assembly. A ripple of excitement flittered across the faces of a few of my fellows. B-r-r-r-r-ring! There was the bell that regulated the lives of student and teacher alike.

As the students lined up outside sucking in the moistening morning air, I gazed around in wonderment at how unremarkable the day would be. The sun wasn’t any brighter or dimmer. The students weren’t any more or less chipper. The sky was the same shade of pale blue with the same brownish overlays of pollution wafting here and there.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The bass drum counted in the national anthem. The flag-pulley’s irregular squeaks struck a dissonant harmony with the patriotic chimes of the xylophone no differently than any other morning. The tatters of the flag sighed apathetically in the light morning breeze.

On my last birthday, I had only been living in Thailand for a couple months, so it was the usual celebration—out to a bar for the night with any old acquaintance who could make it. The difference was that my acquaintances were new, not old, and there was actually cake. The Thais aren’t shy about carrying a cake into a bar and asking the service staff to help with cutting and plating. In a way, last year’s birthday was an official welcome to the Land of Smiles—a welcome to a foreigner using universal elements of birthday partying.

This year, my birthday landed in the middle of the workweek. That meant that I had to teach classes and get on with life as if nothing special was going on. It also meant I wasn’t going out partying that night or doing anything extravagant.

It’s only fitting, I told myself. Thirty-two is an unremarkable age. Tuesday is an unremarkable day of the week. Why should anyone make a fuss? I certainly wasn’t going to. Propriety had long taught me not to make a fuss, even on my birthday. However, honesty reminded me that I craved the attention.

So I went about it the Thai way. I ordered two large pizzas from my favorite pizza place. As the lunch hour neared its closing, my treat had finally arrived.

I carried the two giant boxes proudly through the canteen, feeling the heat of the students’ glares almost as viscerally as from the bottom of the pizza. As I crossed paths with students stumbling about as they’re wont to do during free periods, I had to stifle my laughter at how stunned and confused they were when they eyed my lunch. I became aware of a slowly rising mob of zombies salivating for the spoils of ambush. Don’t look back, I told myself.

I entered the teacher’s room, the beam of my smile lighting my way. “Oh, Lord,” uttered one British teacher.

The aromas of freshly baked dough and tomato sauce comingled and filled the room, betraying to all within nose-shot what repast we teachers were enjoying. I opened the box and felt a burst of steam flow through my face. My colleagues stood nearby, perplexed at what to do next. “Help yourselves,” I said.

They reached in and tried to manage the greasy cheesiness without the aid of plate, napkin, or fork. Eventually I brought A4 paper in from my classroom to serve as impromptu plates. And we all ate in satisfied silence. Compliments were given to the pizza restaurant, inspiring recommendations and a rough description of its location.

But in ten short minutes the tyrannical bell rang, and I left two largely uneaten pizzas on my desk in the staff room and proceeded to my next class. On my brief shuffle from staff room to classroom, rumors of “pizza” were being whispered among the students. They gazed at me with curiosity and supplication. A change was gradually infecting the students—some primal parasite prodding their mouths to water and their gait to limp. Pizzaaaa.

I finished my class without episode and reentered the staffroom. My pizza still sat there cooling. I grabbed another piece and chewed while contemplating the acute angles that marked it’s missing pieces. How in the hell was I going to finish this thing? No way was I bringing it home! I’ve become my mother—overzealous in preparation. It didn’t help that the other teachers had already eaten during the lunch hour, before the pizza arrived.

Then it occurred to me—I was in a building full of teenagers, whose appetites miraculously never wane even in spite of gluttonous gorging. I went back to my classroom and announced to the four girls milling about, “If you want a piece of pizza you may help yourselves.”

Beams of light shot from their eyes. “Really?”

“Yes, but keep it amongst yourselves. It’s a secret. I don’t have enough to go around.”

They each grabbed a slice and began chomping down on it. Immediately I realized I had made several mistakes. First, they were already late to class, and I was rewarding their tardiness with pizza. Second, there were teachers on other floors who should have had first dibs. Third, there has never been a time in human history when a teenager has been able to keep pizza a secret. Within minutes, other students were creeping out of their classrooms asking for pizza. I had to tell each student that other teachers needed to have a slice, but when the teachers have finished they could have the leftovers. That promise, however empty, was enough to keep the zombies at bay for another hour.

At afternoon break, I began visiting all the other classrooms. “I have pizza in the staffroom for all teachers, if you want a slice.” The Filipino teachers knew immediately what was up: “Oh, it’s your birthday today?”

One by one, teachers stepped into the staff room to claim their slice. Being walled with windows on all sides, the staffroom was fully visible from outside. Thus, students gathered around the windows peering in, drooling over promised pizza, groaning whenever another teacher entered the staffroom.

I entered the staffroom after making my rounds, passing a panting, murmuring mob of hungry students on my way inside. “Teacher, now?” they inquired.

“Let me make sure every teacher’s had some.”

“OOOOOOHHHH!”

I examined the pizza when I entered. There were 4 slices left, and I had taken a request to bring one up to the head teacher. I grabbed a slice and looked up. Fog waxed and waned on the windows of the staffroom as students smeared themselves against the glass. I couldn’t possibly pass the famished throng unscathed. I darted left where there were fewer of them, and dashed to the nearest staircase. I glanced over my shoulder—they had begun limping my way. I had only speed and wits as my advantage over them.

After delivering the pizza to my boss, I cautiously crept downstairs. They students were still smudged against the windows salivating. I ducked quickly into the staffroom–the only safe haven from the ravenous teenage mob. The pizza had been wholly consumed, with only a mound of cheese and toppings in the middle of each box. I brought the boxes into my classroom, with the undead in tow. “Eat your hearts out,” I said.

Their eyes narrowed. They licked their lips. They stared gluttonously at the boxes. After a momentary pause, they attacked the boxes. Seeing its contents, they slowly looked up from their scavenged scraps as if to say, “That’s it?” But they simultaneously shrugged and tore up chunks of cheese and toppings and devoured them. And like a gust of wind, they were gone.

Only an hour later, when the final bell had rung, did some of the students appear to me, looking human again, and wished me a happy birthday.