A Short Trip to Chiang Mai

“I drink too much. This stuff.”

He held up a shoulder of Sang Som, Thai rum.

“My daughter begs me to stop, but I can’t.”

I’d only known him for two minutes, but this Frenchman – owner of the bar I was drinking in – couldn’t help himself. Moments later a brash and obtuse twentysomething from the south coast of England entered. We were the only customers. He spoke with the alcoholic Frenchman semi-privately and seemed edgy, claiming to be desperate for marijuana. He left shortly after in search of a joint and the owner once again fed me his inchoate sob story before slinking off to to laugh and flirt clumsily with the unattractive bar girls he had sitting out front.

This is the kind of experience one commonly has in the darker pockets of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital. And it depressed me to the point of leaving this particular bar immediately.

I had arrived three nights before on the night train from Bangkok. At the station in Don Muang, opposite the old international airport, innumerable bugs flew out of a drain and drifted up towards the platform lights. Five minutes later they flew aimlessly and everywhere.

My seat was in first class, but nothing about first class is first class in Thailand, even on prestige routes. The cabin was small and relatively comfortable but it had griminess in the fabric of its being, confirmed by the fact that peanut-sized cockroaches emerged from metal crevices as soon as night fell properly. The smell of urine was faint but noticeable.

I drank two or three expensive beers in a lounge carriage so depressing it reminded me of 1980s kitchen sink drama; Tropical Malady directed by Mike Leigh. Christmas tree lights (actually shaped like Christmas trees) decorated the place and a group of Thais sat drinking cheap whiskey together. A middle-aged woman who worked on the train went through her skin-whitening regimen at the end of her shift, publicly massaging cream into her legs, arms and face. Before long the train workers were setting up bedclothes in the carriage readying themselves for a night’s sleep.

I slept poorly but awoke early to a vista of tree-covered hills shrouded in cool mist.

We arrived at Chiang Mai’s pretty station in mid-morning. Through the gaps between station roof and train the morning sun illuminated the platform in rhombus-shaped shafts of light, like a scene by Anthony Minghella. As is the way in Thailand, touts pestered me for my custom only to revert to neglect in search of more customers when they had me ensnared in their songthaew, my backpack already off.

I asked to be taken to the Royal Guesthouse, a hostelry I first stayed in over a decade before, and not much had changed. There is a rat infestation out front, where dozens of them hang around bags of garbage and are visible even during the day. Inside the lobby area are several water features and mosquitoes. The building itself is about eight storeys high, with a long trellised entrance and a swimming pool on one side.

One might usually describe such a place as having a faded grandeur, but the Royal has likely never been grand. The hotel’s permanent appearance of desertion lends it a ghostly quality even during the day. Its peach facade is stained by years of bad air and unrelenting sunshine. Dead vines hang from the upper storeys like the building’s own limp, sickly tendrils, as if it’s dying of a pathetic timelessness.

Even since I first stayed at the Royal it has been a magnet for oddballs, especially older men. Unlike in Bangkok where the no-hopers are avoidable, in Chiang Mai they are highly visible. They are usually Europeans in their fifties and up. Many are alcoholics, and one man – Dutch, I believe – would start drinking very early. By mid-afternoon he was laughing stupidly at the television, but he was not the only one. Much of the hotel’s cast seemed made up of casualties and lost causes. Perhaps it has something to do with the 150 baht rooms on the seventh floor, a price highly attractive to long-term guests.

The air in Chiang Mai was appalling. Whole mountains were obscured behind a blanket of smog. Slash and burn agriculture, the dry weather, and traffic were variously blamed for this.

At night the go-go bars were full of whores but only a few western men, making them appear sadder than normal.

There are several good points to having an established population of older westerners in town. The bookshops are exceptional, particularly one called On The Road, opposite the U.N. Irish Bar. It carried most of the classics and a superb travel section. This is not the only well-stocked bookstore in town. The food in Chiang Mai is another plus. Western restaurants are diverse and plentiful.

I stayed in two other hotels on my short trip, but it was mostly unremarkable due to my tight budget. I ate Mexican food in a restaurant run by an Alabaman anarchist who looked like Santa Claus. On one evening I had drinks with some friends and played pool with a Finnish police officer. On another I met an Irish journalist based in Burma and an Austrian human rights lawyer. All very typical, for Chiang Mai is a city where it is easy to make friends. This is particularly true during the off-season when the place is primarily populated by expatriates who want someone new to talk to.

I took the train home early in the morning. As we trundled through the countryside I saw further evidence of the earth scorched by farmers. Men snoozed topless in the shade at country stations, though not out of poverty; it was my suspicion that they were compelled to do so by the smokily beautiful torporific landscape.

Distinguishing themselves from the earth tones elsewhere, the abundant rice paddies were as lush as Irish country fields, shimmering in hundreds of shades of green. As the afternoon wore on and the train continued its long journey south the sun turned the colour of sangria.

We were due to arrive in Bangkok at eight o’clock but, as is often the case with journeys in Southeast Asia, the train was running hours late. For the following two hours I wanted some sign that we were getting closer to Bangkok but none was forthcoming. Outside was utter darkness save the odd streetlight and my mind filled in the blanks so that for brief moments I’d think I was in Ireland again.

After ten o’clock the train pulled up at Don Muang station and I was back where I started from six days before, with nothing but memories as hazy as the northern air.

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