Thailand Week 3: Settling In

My first major task in Chiang Mai was to find somewhere to live for the coming month. I’d spent a good while looking online at the different options, which ranged from renting totally empty apartments with no amenities to staying in a swanky hotel room. The University would ultimately be paying, so I needn’t worry too much about the price, especially as the most expensive options were still only £500-£600 for one month.

So I spent an entire afternoon wandering around the area of town relatively close to the NARIT office (where I’d be working most days). In doing so I discovered the following things about short-term accommodation in Thailand:

  • If you want to live in the best places, you need to book 6 months in advance. Two days is a little short notice.
  • Air conditioning and weekly cleaning seem to be the most important selling points.
  • Most places don’t have hot water. Electric showers are common.
  • Many hotels, apartments or “condominiums” shown on the map or advertised by giant signs on the side of the road are in fact still being built.

After getting very hot and very sweaty, hitting lots of literal dead-ends and finding many places fully booked until April, I settled for the first place with everything I needed at a reasonable price (about £300). Huay Kaew residences seems to cater for long term tourists, ex-pats and locals alike. The apartment has a kitchen area with hob and microwave, free access to the swimming pool and “gym”, and weekly cleaning/bed making. I use quotation marks for “gym” because it has three broken treadmills, two broken exercise bikes, a squeaky cross-trainer, and a few worryingly wobbly weight machines. It’s fair to say I haven’t used it much!

However, on Sunday when I said goodbye to Martin and Madelon and headed over to check in at my new ‘home’, I suddenly had second thoughts. It might have been the general sense of loneliness having lost my two companions, or it might have been the fact that I had to pay for the rent and a deposit all in cash (meaning several trips to the ATM over the next few days, and lots of additional nasty bank charges – plus I will be returning to the UK with around £300 worth of Thai Baht – hurray…) Ultimately though I think it was the infestation of ants, spiders and geckos that quickly settled in the apartment as soon as I brought any food inside. Regardless, it was to be home for the next 4 weeks, so I had to get over it. Here’s a few pics.

'Moving house' by tuk-tuk

‘Moving house’ by tuk-tuk

Peeling couch and "the lounge"

Peeling couch and “the lounge”

La Cocina

La Cocina

The enormous and rock hard bed which I've grown to love.

The enormous and rock hard bed which I’ve grown to love.

I don’t think I’ve managed to get through 48 hours without having to tackle a host of ants, or at least clean up the dusting of dead ants that appears the day after the bug spray comes out. I’m quite used to it now, but I’m still looking forward to getting back to my own house. I’ve made good use of the swimming pool though, and can’t say I object to someone else changing my sheets.

The following day I walked about 1km to the city office of NARIT (National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand). It was only as I climbed the stairs of the shared office building, trying to find a familiar face, that I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone about when and where to go. I was just expecting them to expect me. As I have gradually learnt over the past few weeks, public organisations in Thailand, whilst being very polite and friendly, can be somewhat disorganised (I say this having grown up heavily involved in a national children’s charity in the UK which is internally famous for disorganisation, so I feel qualified to lay down this critique). Well, no one seemed surprised to see me, but no one seemed to know what to do with me either. Eventually I was given the code to the door and offered a small desk near the window. Perfect. I soon settled down to (pretend to) work.

Whilst settling in to the NARIT office was easy, I was still struggling with food. Cereal is rather expensive here, and nowhere near as good as in the UK. Plus my first attempt at having cereal was sabotaged by ants, so after buying it for a second time I was really quite fed up. I now keep all my food in the fridge, as it seems to be the only place where the ants can’t go. On a totally unrelated note, I cannot recommend chilled dried mango. It’s painfully chewy.

I have since found a few reasonably reliable places to eat, and I also bought the bare essentials for cooking at home (1x chopping board, 1x wok, 1x sharp knife, 1x spoon&fork, 2x bowl, washing up liquid, 1x sponge), although it took another couple of weeks to actually finding the time and energy to use them. There are plenty of ex-pat run restaurants around town that offer western style food, but it’s usually twice the price and not as good as at home. Plus I already feel like enough of an ignorant, British tourist as it is. I couldn’t bear the thought of returning home to tell everyone all I’d eaten was pizza, chips and bacon sandwiches. Fish/seafood is genuinely the most popular main ingredient here, with pork a close second. The main problem isn’t so much the lack of choice, it’s that when I say  as slowly and clearly as I can: Mai sai kai, pha kap (no egg, no fish please), I still have absolutely no idea if the response is “No egg, no fish, OK no problem!” or “Sorry, we can’t take the egg out/It has fish sauce already”. So I smile and nod and hope it’s the former. Thankfully so far I’ve had no major incidents. It still scares me every time though.

The rest of the week was spent actually being quite productive in the office, working on the user manual for ULTRASPEC, and reducing some of the data from the commissioning tests. I was also dragged in to helping a few of the local astronomers prepare for their observations with the instrument. This is really great experience for me, but definitely doesn’t add anything to my PhD thesis. Oh well, it’s more enjoyable than reading dusty old papers for a literature review, so I can’t complain.

Oh yeah, it also rained like crazy for a few days. That was interesting. The streets and pavements quickly became torrents of dirty, slimy water, which was not so fun to walk through when all you really want is dinner and someone else to talk to…

Heavy heavy rain at the telescope.

Heavy heavy rain at the telescope.

Next time: a weekend trip to Bangkok

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