When I arrived in Chiang Mai back in January, I had never set foot onto Asian soil. This city was my first exposure to Asian life and culture. I’ll never forget my first experience riding down Huay Kaew road on the back of Dave’s motorcycle: I thought I was going to die. Everything seemed so frenzied, with cars, tuk tuks, motorbikes and pedestrians darting everywhere. The sights, sounds and smells of the city were a full on assault on my senses. Despite the initial chaos, I quickly adjusted to this foreign place and Chiang Mai became a kind of home, my baseline Asian city.
It wasn’t until I left the familiar comforts of my apartment in Chiang Mai to venture south to Bangkok that I realized just how good I have it here. From the moment I arrived in the Bangkok train station to the great pleasure of the dozens of taxi and tuk tuk drivers vying for my baht, I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, as the saying goes. From there things only got more aggressive, heading into Cambodia where the poverty is much more prevalent and in your face. Walking around Angkor Wat, you can’t go twenty feet without ten cries of “Lady! Fresh pineapple for you! Very cheap!” or a dozen little girls following you along the road trying to sell you postcards and other small trinkets. At first it’s easy enough to smile and say no politely. At 2pm when you’ve been climbing around temples since 5am in 100 degree plus heat and approximately 147% humidity, it’s much harder to put on your happy face to turn down vendor #493. I can sympathize with their position, but at some point, it’s just exhausting to constantly have to say “no” ten times before someone hears it.
It’s the same with tuk tuk and pedicab drivers. The only time you’re safe is when you are physically in another tuk tuk. Until then, you are fair game and you will be hassled. I remember one afternoon we were in Hue, Vietnam trying to walk around the old Imperial Citadel. This is a large complex of restored buildings, old gates, crumbling walls, and other sites. After spending 75% of the previous day in a car, we were ready to explore on foot. A helpful pedicab driver pointed us in the right direction to the Citadel. Starting to understand how the game works, I knew we hadn’t seen the last of him. After waving and thanking him, he continued to follow us all the way to the Citadel, repeatedly offering us a ride in his pedicab for lower and lower prices. I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t the price- we just didn’t want a pedicab ride- to which he replied, “you never try, you never know!” Clever, sir. Unfortunately all we wanted to do was walk around and he did not seem to be getting the message. It took us a solid ten minutes to lose him, at which point I’m pretty sure Anna, my traveling companion, was on the verge of snapping his head off.
Similar scenarios occurred in every city we visited in Cambodia and Vietnam, although this particular experience in Hue was the worst. It really opened my eyes to comfortable my life in Chiang Mai is. Everyone always says that Thai people are extremely friendly and welcoming and I can personally attest this to be true. In Chiang Mai, when somebody says hello to you on the street, 99% of the time they are just being friendly and have no agenda. When a tuk tuk driver pulls over to offer you a ride, if you say no, they nod and drive off. I was absolutely astounded by how different the culture in Chiang Mai is to the rest of the parts of SE Asia that I visited. Granted, I went to mostly tourist hot spots and didn’t even make it to Laos, but overall, I was amazed at how artificial the friendliness felt everywhere we went. Sure, that lady with the basket of donuts is all smiles and cheer until you say “no, I don’t want donuts” for the fifth time, at which point her face drops and she stomps off to her next target.
There are plenty of things that I loved about Cambodia and Vietnam, which I’ll be writing about soon, but this feeling of fake friendliness is one of the biggest things that stuck out to me throughout our trip. Had I started in Hanoi, I would have had a very different understanding of SE Asia. It just goes to show how relative our impressions are. Also, although the cultures do share a lot of similarities, this trip highlighted how different these three countries and the cities within them are. It makes me very grateful to have found such a warm, welcoming temporary home in Chiang Mai!
p.s. For more thoughts, check out my latest blog entry for the ATMA SEVA organization blog, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Schedule. Another entry with pictures coming soon!