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.

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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.

Hanging Out With Elephants

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The elephants eating straw and grass at feeding time. Clearly eating out is just as much a social activity for them as it is for us.

The truck sped through the field, zigzagging around clefts and dimples in the ground. Behind it, a herd of elephants stampeded gently in tow. They pressed around the truck glutinously, raising their trunks and smiling with eagerness. Some just couldn’t wait, and reached out their greedy trucks to grab a handful of grass from the bed of the truck. The mahouts gently coaxed them away with watermelon halves and bananas to give the driver enough time to rake the piles of grass out of the bed. It’s feeding time. Of course, here at the Elephant Nature Park, it’s always feeding time.

Founded in 1996, the Elephant Nature Park is an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center about two hours outside Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. The founder, Lek, has a passion for giving these animals a safe haven from the abuses they receive in the logging and tourist industries that have victimized and endangered them.

A "family" of elephants with their mahout (the good kind). At ENP, most of the elephants aren't actually family, but they form social groups that behave exactly like families. In other words, they take care of each other.
A “family” of elephants with their mahout (the good kind). At ENP, most of the elephants aren’t actually family, but they form social groups that behave exactly like families. In other words, they take care of each other.

In these industries, mahouts—the Thai term for an elephant guide—use sticks and other abusive tools to coerce elephants into performing the difficult tasks required of them in “domesticity.” Whether they’re pulling logs in the mountains, carrying tourists in parks and trails, or dazzling urbanites in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, elephants have for a long time been pulled from their natural habitats and exploited for the economic enrichment of human beings. And the ritual involved in initially breaking elephants in the logging industry is nothing short of sadistic torture.

The Elephant Nature Park is among the first of a steadily proliferating tourism attraction, where the appeal of the elephants is not riding them or seeing them perform in culture shows, but seeing them in their natural habitat and being a part of their daily peaceful lives. Instead of putting sticks and hooks in the hands of mahouts, Elephant Nature Park gives them satchels full of watermelons, bananas, and other nutritious treats. Instead of punishing animals for undesired behavior and goading them with brute force, these mahouts reward the elephants for desirable behavior and lead them with tenderness and tastiness.

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Two soul sisters and their mahouts.

When I visited the park for the second time in April, I was not only pleased to see not only the progress they’ve made in only two years, but that the power of the experience does not diminish with repetition. I simply cannot adequately express how inspiring it is to be among these majestic and playful creatures. Their intelligence is uncanny; their personalities so rich. It is truly rewarding to be peacefully among these gentle giants feeding, them, petting them, and even
bathing them. Their gentleness is matched by their power, and when they charge across a field and trumpet their warnings, it’s frightfully awesome.

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Three elephants at another feeding time. These three ladies stick together at all times and protect each other. The one on the far left is the one who has a broken hip. If I remember correctly, the one on the right is blind in one or both eyes.

Yet the experience isn’t wholly positive. It’s bittersweet. As I spent time around the elephants laughing at their antics, I learned their tragic stories one by one. Some elephants have been blinded, thanks to their misuse in the logging camps. One logging mahout actually stabbed out an elephant’s eyes when she “misbehaved.” Since forced breeding is a common practice in that industry, another elephant’s hips were disjointed from a male elephant that didn’t like her but was forced to mate with her. Several elephants have mangled feet from stepping on land mines while logging in formerly militarized areas.

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While we were there, it was the birthday of one of the elephants. Some of the volunteers made a “cake” out of greens and fruit. As you can see, they’re all chowing down at this little trunk party.

If you ever plan to visit Thailand (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), I highly recommend making this sanctuary a part of your itinerary. It’ll be worth every penny—er, baht—to both you and these marvelous animals.

As one can imagine, the baby elephants were the most popular and most playful. The adult pictured with this one isn't his mother. She acts as his guardian or foster parent. Because the calves don't have the negative experiences of their guardians, they were much bolder when approaching humans. This proved dangerous for us since their guardians immediately charged in to keep them away from us.
As one can imagine, the baby elephants were the most popular and most playful. The adult pictured with this one isn’t his mother. She acts as his guardian or foster parent. Because the calves don’t have the negative experiences of their guardians, they were much bolder when approaching humans. This proved dangerous for us since their guardians immediately charged in to keep them away from us.