being local in chiang mai
After living in Thailand for more than two years, I like to consider myself a local.

Although, let’s face it: as a westerner in Thailand, I will never be a real local. Certainly, I can adapt. I can learn. But, I am not Thai and never will be.

However, I am decidedly more “Thai” than I was when I first arrived in 2012.

So much has changed, and if you’ve been following my life as an expat, you know it isn’t all easy. It isn’t all pretty. But, it is all worth it.

When I first arrived, I definitely had the western attitude and expectations (maybe you know: oh, I can’t get sick from this street food … of course the health department would shut them down if there was a chance I could).

Here are some signs to look for to determine if you’ve been here long enough to consider yourself a local in Chiang Mai:

Ants are ok

ants

ALL THE ANTS.

I sit at a local restaurant — one I have eaten at plenty over my two-plus years as an expat in Thailand. Sipping the warm broth and scooping up big bits of tofu, I notice red flakes in the bowl.

Chili flakes, I think.

With the sun casting shadows into the ceramic, chipped dish, I lean forward, squinting at my lunch.

It isn’t chili flakes at all.

It is red ants. Hundreds of them, littering my soup, floating belly-up (is that even possible?) in the water.

I don’t scream.  I don’t flinch. After all, in Cambodia the year before, when I dumped pepper onto my eggs, little bugs — still alive — rolled in the yolk like the little bugs from Nintendo’s Dr. Mario.

Today, I simply point it out to the server, pushing the offending bowl out of my reach.

I even still pay for the soup … after all, ants are a part of life here.

Ants truly invade my life. They crawl out of my keyboard. Hang out in nests under the tiles in my shower. Bite my arm when I sleep. Pain in the ass? Absolutely. But, ’tis life!

So are roaches

Lucky swats at something under my bathmat in the shower. I scold him, and then look at his object: a cockroach.

Old Diana would have screamed, and likely tried to capture the bug or spray it to its death with roach spray. I do neither. Instead, I look at the bug, praise the little guy for his (I’m going with all cockroaches are males) ability to make it from the deathly streets outside, into my pipe and up into the white tiles of my bathroom.

And name him George.

The next day, I’m actually slightly saddened to see George already well into rigor mortis.

The street dogs wag their tails when you walk by

Street dogs can be pretty intimidating, especially when they run in packs and block the way down the tiny jungle sois of Chiang Mai. I used to not make eye contact, to show no fear, when they barked at my encroaching on their turf.

However, after walking down the same paths for years, the barking subsided (a little) and they actually would wag their tails.

The street vendors know what you eat

street food in Chiang Mai

So much street food to devour.

For one year, about three nights each week, I’d hit up Chiang Mai Gate’s street food market and order noodle soup at the same spot. The couple — a brother and sister who spoke no english — knew me and soon, I would simply walk up, greet them in Thai and say “same same,” to have the noodle bowl delivered to me for a mere 30 baht.

Your feet are a constant shade of black

Living in perpetual summer means feet are rarely covered. In fact, most days I would wear flips or my trusty Crocs, meaning my feet were never clean. Like, ever. Even now, remnants of black still linger on my heels, thanks to two years walking with no protection on my feet.

You wear a winter coat … when it is 60 degrees outside

I used to get a chuckle out of locals when, on crisp winter mornings when the temps topped out at 60 F, they were bundled in winter coats, scarves, gloves and hats. Then, I spent an entire year in the tropical climate and became one of them.

When the temps dipped into non-shorts weather, I too, would clad myself in total winter weather gear.

Showers at night? Forget about it.

On motorbikes, that biting winter “cold” was even worse.

Yes, the “winter” wasn’t winter by most standards, but for us, in Chiang Mai? HOLY CRAP it’s cold.

You don’t bat an eye when you see an older man with a younger woman

The sexpat culture in Thailand takes some getting used to. The bar girls and older men used to be difficult for me to stomach, but then I got to know the men and the girls. And it became “normal.” Although I never totally was OK with the dichotomy of the relationships (I personally don’t subscribe to the subservient/dominant nature of many of the couplings I saw), I got used to it.

You opt for walking in the street versus on the “sidewalk”

Out-of-use phone booths. Signs. Enormous holes that can swallow a body. These are all things to contend with when using “sidewalks” in Chiang Mai. There were a few glorious stretches of untouched sidewalk I relished, but for the most part, I opted to risk my life by walking in the street. A quick glance around shows I’m not the only one.

You’re english turns into Thai-glish

“I go gin kaow,” was probably the most used statement I made in my time living as an expat in Chiang Mai.

I go eat.

My english turned into Thai-glish quickly thanks to the lack of tense in the Thai language. It became more simple.

You adopt the “no worries” attitude. For everything.

Probably the hardest thing for me to adapt to was the “mai pen rai” attitude, or “no worries.” But, when everyone else lives that attitude, it is hard not to let that became a personal mantra.

Late for something? Mai pen rai.

Ants in my soup? Mai pen rai.

Having a falling out? Mai pen rai.

Bonus: you stuff toilet paper in the bin. When you’re not in Thailand

The first time I left Thailand, I automatically still reached for the trash can to toss used toilet paper, forgetting the pipes in the western world were meant for flushing paper versus the Thai/SE Asia plumbing system. Congratulations, this is the ultimate local in Chiang Mai status.

18 comments

  1. Yes, Yes, YES!!! Absolutely amazing post! : ) When we returned to North America, we instinctively walked in the street and our friends seemed scared for our lives. In Chiang Mai, it was just easier than the obstacle course of a sidewalk. Fantastic!

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  2. Love the toilet paper one. Taiwan is also the same, when transitioning into Taiwan I always flush the toilet paper by mistake for the first couple of days… And then the reverse when I go back home!

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  3. Lol! When I lived in Chiang Mai one night that I cooked at home I instinctively started eating a plate of maccheroni with the spoon-fork combination as if I was in a restaurant having Thai food. Now if I ate maccheroni with spoon and fork in Italy I could lose my Italian passport 🙂

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  4. Missed so many points, i drink beer on the side of the road outside a Thai minimart, ice in beer (no me though) beer in ”condoms’ driving a car/motorbike….dont get me started on how i drive now, i would not make it out of the car park in the airport back home in the UK before being pulled over by the police !!
    I better stop there or you will have another blog to write !
    Kevin

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    1. Haha! There will be a part 2 wherein I mention adding “ka” or wai-ing everyone and more. 🙂 The sitting outside on little tables drinking beer with ice … ahhhhh.

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  5. We were only in Chiang Mai for a very brief time last January, but a few of your “signs” resonate. It only took me about an hour to figure out that the unsafe street was safer than the obstacle course sidewalk. At my age, I was more likely looking at a broken hip than a sprained ankle if I missed a hole or chunk of shattered “pavement”.

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  6. The take-away plastic bags still make me giggle! And it took me forever to learn how to open them without making a mess. 😉

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