I stand on the foot-high candy-striped curb, flip-flop toes hanging over the edge. I’m poised to make a move. I’m in the ready position. Any minute now.
I’ve been saying this for three minutes.
I’m the chicken trying to cross the four-lane road that runs around the outside of Chiang Mai’s Old City walls. On each side of the generous centre median, three lines of traffic drift among the two lanes painted on the asphalt. Trucks, cars and songthaews – the covered pick-up trucks that serve as Chiang Mai’s informal mini-bus system – set the pace for this river of traffic, and the road space around them fills up with scooters, motorcycles and the odd tourist tuk-tuk.
It’s morning rush hour and there isn’t a stoplight in sight. I know if I wait for a real break in traffic I’ll be here all day. So I step out, glad that I’m too tall to be missed, and move forward at an even pace as the vehicles adjust around me. Crossing the road here feels like tagging in to double Dutch – the ropes never stop, you just eye them up until you get a hang of the rhythm and then you go for it.
So much of Thai life takes place on the street. The front facades of most commercial spaces are metal roll-top garage doors that open fully and the city’s kitchens and living rooms spill into the public realm. If it’s flat and it’s paved it’s commercial real estate. The meagre sidewalk allowances are often fully obstructed by café tables, vegetables for sale, utility poles or sandwich boards advertising a cheap trip to the Tiger Kingdom. The first metre of the adjacent travel lane is motorcycles parked on a diagonal, so I usually end up walking parallel to the sidewalk but well into the street. I walk toward oncoming traffic, hoping it makes me more visible, particularly at night when streets are only sporadically lit by exposed fluorescent tubes, light sabres stabbing the sky.
Much of the commercial activity on the street is food preparation and consumption as Thais rarely cook at home. Early morning sidewalk markets sell the inputs – colourful vegetables, fish with heads intact – that are mixed and matched by street chefs into the evening street buffet. I walk by deep metal pots with different coloured curries; skewered meat smoking over charcoal; white melon-ball shapes (meat?) that get dropped into soup; and deep-fried everything from bugs to bananas. I’m still eating vegetarian thanks to Air China, but even I find something that appeals – little bags of fresh pineapple cubes at 30 cents a hit.
Besides food, the commercial landscape is a predictable mix of clothing and shoe stores, internet cafes, coffee shops and pharmacies. I don’t see any lawyers or accountants – maybe this country of Buddhists has figured out a way to do without. I’ve seen more than one store that sells only stuffed animals – all shapes and sizes, displayed in plastic bags on the sidewalk. Plush bears are big business here – every time I walk past there is a line up, and most customers purchase two or three animals per visit.
Four days on foot was a great way to get my bearings, but streetwalking all day in flip flops has been tough on my pedicure so I was happy that my second hotel gave me a free bike. One step up the transportation food chain. It’s a rusty old one-speed upright with half a brake and a seat that makes my pelvic bones cry. But it’s also freedom and it’s wind in my hair and it has a basket on the front for my laptop so I love it.
There are no explicit infrastructure provisions for cyclists so I bike on the road with the rest of the traffic. I swerve around parked obstacles and the cars and motorcycles swerve around me. Everything feels backwards because they drive on the wrong (British) side of the road here but so far I’m still in one piece. Traffic rarely travels above 30km/h, even on major roads, so it’s fairly easy for the locals to compensate for white girls who don’t know where they are going.
Passing faster through the same neighbourhoods I first explored on foot, I notice the smells. Incense, then sewage; cooking charcoal followed by laundry detergent; air pollution mixed with cooking chilis that make me sneeze. When I hear music, it’s usually amateur-sounding acoustic covers of Western pop songs – like someone cut an album with a bunch of YouTube wannabes. And so much Celine Dion! It makes me want to apologize to everyone on behalf of Canada.
I like early mornings best, when the air is cool but the sun is warm and the city is just waking up. I take the long way to the coffee shop (a new one each day), often passing orange-clad monks on alms walks and parents taking children to school, three and four to a single scooter. Sometimes I have to speed up to avoid the scrappy, strangely proportioned mutts, but their stunted legs don’t let them chase me for long.
One of these days I’ll get it together to take a tour or ride an elephant or snap a selfie in front of a temple. But not today. Today I’m just happy watching the world from my bike.