Chiang Mai Travel Tips
Chiang Mai is one of the most enjoyable and safe cities in the world. Still, there are certain activities and actions that are better avoided to stay safe and to not spoil your stay in Chiang Mai. Here are a few travel tips to stay safe:
Don't Do Drugs
Liberalising drug laws in some western countries have instilled the belief in people that drugs are o.k. everywhere.
In Thailand, this attitude is very dangerous and can lead to prison terms and the loss of large amounts of money. Even the death penalty can be meted out to drug dealers.
If your case went to court, for small amounts for private consumption, your sentence might actually turn out rather mild. Alas, these cases will be resolved by the police.
They will confiscate your passport and may jail you for up to seven days initally. Under the present military regime soldiers have escalated powers to keep you even longer and may authorize police to do so.
Currently (summer 2016), every officer in the Thai military, from sub-lieutenant up, has powers to throw you in jail on any charge, even trumped up, even if you're a nondescript "threat to national security".
In most drug cases involving foreigners, police will demand large bribes to release you from jail and/or return your passport.
These "fines" will run to the hundreds of thousands of Baht. 300k Baht in Chiang Mai, even more in Bangkok and on the islands are not unheard of as of 2016. These payments have no legal basis but may be declared as "bail" or "security deposit".
Upon payment which may be facilitated by a lawyer (who will demand additional fees), your passport will be returned so you can leave the country. A criminal case will usually not be filed by the police and the case will be "forgotten".
You really can't trust anyone with procuring drugs. Hippie bar staff or "progressive" guest house owners may be police informants who will call the cops to get a percentage of the fines as "commission".
Even some deadbeat expats are in on this game. It gives them some extra funds plus the police will ignore their visa issues.
Lastly, short term holiday makers are one-time customers who have no recourse and can't complain. Most chemical drugs you buy in Chiang Mai are fake or severely diluted. "Cocaine" is usually just codaine to numb the gums and may contain miniscule amounts of meth if any at all. This may actually give you a way out if you get caught as there are no actual drugs in your possession.
To be perfectly safe, you system should even be totally free of drugs, so that they can't detected in a random urine test sometimes conducted by police in nightlife areas in other destinations in Thailand such as Khao San Road or the Full Moon Party.
SO, do your drugs at home or another destination, not Thailand, not at hippie enclaves, not at full-moon "parties", not anywhere.
Image: 'No drugs’ by Leo Reynolds http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4142/4766825175_d41f8f75dd_m.jpg Licensed Under Creative Commons.
Do not believe the travel guides
Travel guides will without exception state that 'Thai people are so friendly', 'You cannot turn down invitations', 'You cannot complain or raise your voice', and the most ludicrous canard of all 'Don't touch a person's head as it's the dwelling place of spirits!'. This is all true to some extent. Thai people, and especially the people of Chiang Mai, are very friendly and welcoming. However, there are certain individuals who will take advantage of passive tourists who just go along with the flow.
Especially newly arrived tourists are irritable and tired and look for an easy path to find some rest. This vulnerable state is exploited by touts, mostly taxi or tuk-tuk drivers who receive commission for taking tourists to certain establishments. Hotel and guesthouse owners will also be at the airport, the train station and bus stations, trying to get tourists to go with them.
The touts will try to make rapport by calling you 'my friend' and trying to strike up a conversation feigning interest in personal matters. They will invite you to stay at their place as if taking you to a homestay with their family. These invitations can and should be turned down. Travel guide advice does not apply here. It is also ok to raise your voice in this particular situation, the touts are provoking it and they are used to it.
Major scams like the infamous Bangkok gem scam are not (yet) common in Chiang Mai, neithere is the drugging and robbery of tourists. Almost all areas of Chiang Mai are safe to walk, even at night. The security situattion has actually improved in recent years.
Do not ride a bicycle
Chiang Mai used to be known as the Rose of the North, a largish city with a small town feel, airy hills and friendly people.
Traffic was not a problem. Even into the nineties, the newly-built superhighway was partly overgrown with weeds. This lead several travel guides (Here's looking at you, Lonely Planet!), to tout bicycle riding in Chiang Mai as an environmentally friendly and a pre-pc politically correct activity, languidly meandering through a tranquil backwater.
This has radically changed. Today, Chiang Mai has a severe and growing traffic problem in almost all areas of the city.
More traffic means more situations where cars have to negotiate dangerous situations among them. When bicycles are caught in the middle of this, the bike rider will be in mortal danger. The peril arises from the fact that a bicycle is too slow to get out of dangerous situations and a hit from a car leads to severe injury or death.
Numerous foreign tourists have been killed or severly injured over the years. Drunk driving is also very common in Chiang Mai, as DUI is hardly policed (yet).
It's not that bikes are ignored or have no standing in Thai traffic. Rather, when a Thai driver hits a bicycle, he's in big trouble even when he wasn't at fault. On the other hand, a driver killing a bike rider will not see the inside of a jail because in court the injury will inadvertently be partly blamed on the bike rider just for being there and choosing such a weak and dangerous vehicle. This goes especially for a foreign tourists who should be able to afford "something better" than a bicycle.
Always remember: Thailand has the second highest rate of road deaths in the world.
It is much safer to ride a scooter or motorbike than it is to ride a bicycle. Renting a scooter in Chiang Mai is incredibly cheap due to relentless supply and competition. 99 Baht for a 24 hour rental have recently been observed (early 2015), the lowest rate, even nominally, in 20 years.
Update: Three days after first posting this, another around-the-world bike rider was killed in Thailand, his wife and baby son were injured.
Several of my friends and acquaintances have been killed or severely injured while riding a bicycle in Thailand. It is MUCH SAFER to ride a SCOOTER or MOTORBIKE. Riding a bike may be slightly better for the environment. But it can easily get you killed and your cremation will pollute the environment even more!
Only two years ago, in 2013, two British around-the-world bike riders were killed in Thailand. The driver drove into them while he picked up a mobile phone from the floor of his truck. He was FINED 1000 BAHT (30 US$), never charged and never jailed. The same will happen to the killer of Juan Francisco Guillermo, at most a minor fine. The primitive thinking is "Why is this white man riding a bike around Thailand? Is he too poor to afford a car? Must be his bad Karma that got the better of him now.". Again:
DO NOT ride a bicycle in Thailand!
Update 2: It's a few weeks later and another three bike riders were killed in Chiang Mai, six were injured, two seriously, all in the same crash by a woman smashing her car into a group of riders.
Update 3: Just fourty hours after the Update 2 carnage, another cyclist was killed in Bangkok. Here's a Bangkok Post article summarizing bicycle deaths and the puny slaps on the wrist the murderous drivers receive. The issue also made the editorial of the Bangkok Post with some more details.
Update 4: Another article detailing how cyclists are treated on Thai roads, and after an accident occurs. Whoever hits a motorcycle is in trouble, while a cyclist is always at fault when he or she gets hit.
Update 5 July 2017: Another accident - Warning! Video with graphic content Ok, this could happen anywhere but it shows that a bicycle has no weight or substance and is knocked over by the smallest incident. A motorbike or scooter rider wouldn't have fallen in this situation. This kind of accident can be deadly in Thailand where road space is often at a premium.
Do not wear flip-flops
Airy, cool and light, everyone wears flip-flops in the tropics at one point. For women (and some men, duh), they are a great way to show off their pedicured feet.
Alas, flip-flops are very dangerous, especially in Chiang Mai. The sidewalks are in abysmal shape, and many places don't even have a usable sidewalk at all. There are cracks, shards, thorns, holes, wire and other debris everywhere. This stuff is polluted with dog excrement, particle dust, pollen, drunk backpacker vomit, diesel fumes and other detritus. Sharp objects will readily enter you flip-flops and injure your feet, leading to serious infections. The hospital bill can run to hundreds or even thousands of dollars and cut your travel short.
Riding a motorbike or bicycle with flip-flops should even be outlawed: Any accident or fall will readily injure your feet. In every resort in Thailand there are backpackers with injured feet who thought nothing of wearing flip-flops on the wrong occasions. Believe me, they are the idiots of the backpacker scene, lower than the smelliest hippie who can't do yoga.
Even crocs are a worlds better than flip flops. Really, spend some money on half-way decent shoes (even 3 dollar knockoff crocs) and save money on hospital bills.
Do not visit Karaoke Bars
Karaoke Bars are not brothels (obviously, prostitution is illegal in Thailand, duh!) but they are ripoff dens for the uninitiated. Quick primer: Hostesses are paid per half hour or hour (about 250 per girl per hour in early 2015) to sit with guests. Drinks don't have to be purchased for the hostess inspite of their insistence. Buying "lady drinks" is a money pit. The mamasan (girl's manager) may expect a tip for suggesting girls. Don't spend hours in these places and obey the number one rule for bars: Don't fall in love with a girl who sells sexual services for money!. Pretty Woman does not exist, anywhere! Further reading is here and here.
Update: And another incident showing how bills can rise to astounding levels: Two Aussies Make Gits of Themselves at Ripoff Bar. Again: The girls in these places are not bargirls waiting for a lady drink and a 'bar fine'. They are hostesses whose time has to be paid for.
Never join or confront a group of roadside drinkers
Another guidebook tip may lead to the wrong behaviour with roadside drinkers, usually groups of Thai males with a bottle of whisky on the table. The travel guide will say that you can't turn down an invitation to have a sip of whiskey they offer. This isn't true and can be dangerous. These invitations can be accepted in 'small-town enviroments' where people are genuinely interested in the new arrival.
In a tourist environment, these groups are best ignored. If the group is very drunk and you start drinking with them, dynamics in the group can develop that are hard to control and may get out of hand. The group member with the best English will establish himself as the group leader (gain face) and other members may not understand much and view the leader's behavior as illoyal.
To gain further face, some members may also try to take you to their house, relatives or an entertainment venue. This will lead to drunk driving between a variety of places and is generally very dangerous.
Such groups should also never be offended or even talked to in a manner that may be misunderstood. It's not that these people are violent, but alcohol-fueled violence may sometimes be seen as a means to clear the situation and maintain face (social standing within the group). That said, thuggery is very uncommon in Thailand and again, Thailand is safer in these respects than almost any other country in the world.
Don't drink buckets
Photo Credit: Truevoyage.com
In Chiang Mai, it's the streets. Tourist fall down, hit their heads on the pavement, ruin their flip-flopped feet, get hit by cars or tuk-tuks, fall in the moat and almost drown, end up in the wrong bed, more often than not in the ICU section of the hospital. More and more young tourists make complete gits of themselves with the price gap between drinks in western entertainment venues and those in Thailand getting ever larger. And believe me: The local Thais will despise you. Making a public nuisance of oneself is a big no-no in Thailand. So: Drink responsibly, get your own drink (it's cheap also) and keep count. Even better, stay away from whisky and stick with beer or wine, never drink on an empty stomach and drink plenty of water between alcoholic drinks.