Thursday, January 22, 2009


The sky is a welcome soft blue, the air soft with a tinge of coolness, the sun generously warming: Chiang Mai in January. I feel so fortunate to be here.

Yesterday, as I was in the main big market (the name has vanished from my brain as I write this), I was reminded of how different things are here. Of course there's the climate, and the amazing variety of fresh fruit (dragonfruit, jackfruit, papaya, etc etc) and vegetables (where to begin listing them???) as well as aromatics (galangal, krachai, lemongrass, lime leaves, beautiful small purple shallots and on and on). But the more profound difference is how people conduct themselves in the street.

The market feels like a maze, at least the first times you visit, but is actually organised as a grid of lanes and side alleys, with covered areas in between, where trucks loaded with produce sit in rows parked, waiting for buyers, and rows of small stalls offer food, tools, and more food, of every description.

The alleys and lanes are lined with shops and impromptu sellers of everything from meat or frogs or fish or produce, to sticky rice with sankaya, or grilled pork on a stick. And the narrow space down the centre of the alleys and lanes is packed with people on foot, as well as the occasional motorcycle and even more difficult-to-digest truck. Some people push a trolley that carries a huge basket, into which they load masses of raw food as they work their way through their shopping list; these are people buying for restaurants and street vendors. Others are there to shop for just a household's daily needs. And apart from these buyers, there are also guys carrying huge loads or pushing carts loaded to the max, bringing supplies or produce into the market.

The difficulty is that the crowds, moving in all directions, with their awkward loads, mean that no-one gets anywhere very easily or quickly. There's a lot of stopping and waiting, while a truck extricates itself from a side-lane, or two guys with trolleys headed in opposite directions thread their way past each other.

In North America and in many places in Europe, this would lead to shouting and swearing, frustration and intensity. In the market here in Chiang Mai, people just accommodate: they pause, let the other guy through, step aside, weave in and out in a kind of unorchestrated very mindful and complex ballet, pause to joke with a friend or a stranger in passing. It's a lovely entertaining and enlightening human spectacle.

Out on the roads here, the approach is the same. People pass even when they can see another car coming, not to court a head-on disaster, but because they know they can rely on the other guy to slow a little to let them get by. And the other guy, instead of honking in outrage, does in fact yield.

Foreigners who have business dealings in Thailand can be heard to complain about this lack of sharp edges. It leads people to think that Thais cannot be relied on. But yes, they can. It's just that their priority tends to be to avoid conflict (or collisions) and to try to accommodate differences or inconveniences, rather than fighting them head-on.

And for the foreigner who spends any time here, it is a great lesson in "jai yen" - keeping a cool heart rather than getting heated over short-term frustrations.

The Year of the Rat is coming to an end. It's been a big one for us, with the publishing of Beyond the Great Wall and lots of personal changes and new horizons. I'm hoping for a lighter-hearted less pressured new year, myself. May your next year be as you dream it should be.


Tashi said...

I miss Thailand... :(

Robyn said...

Hi Naomi - Is it Muang Mai Market, by the river? My favorite in Chiang Mai.
As to jai yen - living a year in Thailand definately taught me (1) to smile more readily, especially at strangers,
and (2) to 'chill out' ie. when waiting in traffic or in line or when walking amongst crowds. Overall I think the experience of living in Thailand left me a kinder, more tolerant person. It's that kind of place, isn't it?