If you regularly read our posts you will know that our preferred method of transportation is on-foot or by bike. This approach delivers our daily exercise while exploring new territory at a pace that let’s us discover, in more depth, the place being visited.
On our 2015 visit to South East Asia we found this quite challenging. However, believing the various travelogues that we had researched, we thought that Chiang Mai may be a little less life threatening to us ‘bottom feeding’ cyclists and pedestrians – ‘the streets of the old city are filled with monks and motorcycle-driving housewives’ – according to Lonely Planet. Well don’t believe what you read Cliff!
We quickly realised that pedestrians are simply regarded as potential targets. Similar to the way a New Zealander views a possum while driving at night. We haven’t seen any human road kill yet but, we also haven’t seen very many people walking more than a few paces to get into or onto their ‘weapon of choice’. We see a few cyclists. Most of these look like seasoned combatants, something you would see in a Mad Max movie, touch them at your peril as their humanity has probably been lost trying to negotiate the vehicular mayhem.
We humans are adaptable souls and we have rapidly developed new survival skills that allow us to negotiate the footpaths, roads and lanes around the city without too much impact on the blood pressure. We have already ‘clocked up’ a reasonable number of walking km albeit at a much slower pace and, surprisingly, quite a few kms on the cycle. Walking speed is comparable to that achieved on a rough mountain track back in New Zealand. This is not helped by any need to cross a road which is even more terrifying than Hanoi. Cycling requires the execution of death defying manoeuvres on some stretches of tarmac while the quieter back lanes can actually be very pleasant.
The old city is surrounded by a moat (around 6km of it). In order to lay assault to the delights of the old city, you have to cross two one way ‘motorised moats’ that run parallel to the watery one. I suspect that the authorities conscript the entire population of Chiang Mai (plus quite a few foreign mercenaries) in this defence of the city. Recruits are placed in cars, trucks, songthaew, tuk tuk, on motorcycles (most are probably not housewives though) and told to drive, at breakneck pace and as close as possible to one another, around the city all day and for most of the night. Many appear to be colour blind and in the few places that traffic lights exist don’t assume that a red light is going to result in all oncoming traffic stopping. Pedestrian crossings exist for the sole purpose of trying to entice invaders onto the motorised flow so that they are easier targets.
Out of their vehicles the Thais are very friendly and welcoming and this more than makes up for the challenges to walking. The downside of all of the motorised traffic is poor air quality. Unlike New Zealand where the wind shifts our pollution out to sea, Chaing Mai is inland and devoid of sea breezes. As you walk you probably get to ‘enjoy’ fumes that have accumulated over some period of time.