Some Notes on Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Several people have asked me about living in Thailand. After spending a year in Chiang Mai, here are a few suggestions, recommendations and things I wished I knew ahead of time.

  • Learn to speak Thai, at least a little bit. We took classes over Skype video for 2 months from Brett Whiteside and it really helped. I can speak and understand enough basics for cordial and respectful interactions with people, and to eat wherever I want :). If you’re going to be there for a while learn to read Thai. It’s seriously worth it, if only for reading menus and signs.
  • Always print a detailed map of wherever you’re going. Anywhere. All the time. Really.
  • Make a custom Google map with the locations of: post office, utility offices (power, water), telco, police station, etc. Just in case.
  • Banking: ATMs cost US$5 per transaction, and result in currency conversion fees. Instead, open a Bangkok Bank account and get a debit card. Getting a bank account took some paperwork, about an hour of waiting in the bank, and I think you have to pay a small fee. Bangkok Bank is the only Thai bank with a US branch (in NY). This means that you can make direct transfers from US banks to your Bangkok Bank account, allowing for money access with a minimum of delay and fees.
  • 3G: I used AIS, which has unlimited (5GB IIRC) 3G monthly pre-paid option. Absolutely recommended for access to Google Maps while lost ;).
  • Thai street food is often safer than food from “western” places. The food at the carts is usually bought fresh that day, and is cooked in front of you. The food at “western” hotels and restaurants is cooked out of sight, and they try to store food, which is risky since there’s not really health department inspections like in the states, to ensure the storage is properly done. You’ll find infinite opinions about this – this is my personal experience. There’s no magic solution. You will have some intestinal discomfort at some point.
  • Western toilets are everywhere. At some point however, you’ll need to use a squat toilet. Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures has humorous yet informative instructions for properly using a squat toilet.
  • Use Foursquare or some other check-in service. I often couldn’t find a place that I wanted to return to, or had forgotten the street, etc.
  • 7-11. Is awesome. In Thailand you will pay your utility bills, refill your phone minutes, purchase concert tickets, and many other things there.
  • Temples: Wear long pants and shirts with sleeves. Be quiet and respectful. Donate money to them.

Most importantly: Go anywhere and everywhere. Always take a different route. Pull over often. Walk down unfamiliar streets. See every temple. Explore every market. And always carry your camera.


Trip Log: Mozilla Kenya

I recently had the unique opportunity to make a short trip to Nairobi with Pierros Papadeas to do a series of talks at various schools and groups there, and attend the Firefox 4 release party there. The superbly organized Mozilla Kenya group made our stay enjoyable, making the most of the time we had there, giving us an opportunity to talk with many many people about Firefox and Mozilla.

Day 1

  • Flew from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, had from 10pm to 2am, did some Skype meetings and code reviews. Sometimes oddly productive, these transient hours.
  • Flew to Doha, Qatar. Barely enough time to peek around the duty-free megastore that the terminal is centered around before flight departs to Nairobi. I’ve never been to either, but from the air Doha looks like Dubai’s younger sibling: lots of tall and shiny new buildings.
  • Land at Nairobi. It’s the middle of the day, and I’ve basically not slept in 24 hours now. The currency exchange before immigration won’t take Thai Baht (hadn’t heard of Thailand!). I need 20USD to get through. I can’t hit the ATM because I lost my debit card in China last week. Immigration holds my passport while I go to the Barclays outside… who won’t give me a cash-advance on my Visa without… my passport! Lovely. Eventually the immigration guy walks down with me, watching closely to make sure I don’t try and escape into Kenya.
  • Got a sim card for 3USD. I’ve been in Africa for 30 minutes and already have 3G.
  • Checked in at the hotel. Met with Alex Wafula, head of Mozilla Kenya for lunch.
  • Tried to stay awake. Didn’t work. Which is fine, because I had so little sleep that I slept mostly through the night.

Day 2

  • Had curry lamb for breakfast at the hotel, and some pieces of fried dough, kinda like a doughnut piece, but with no sugar.
  • Met Pierros for breakfast, and then met Alex and more of the Mozilla Kenya crew in the lobby, and into the pop-top van we go, driving halfway across the country for our first talk!
  • About 45 minutes outside of Nairobi, we come down a mountainside overlooking… the Rift valley! The cradle of civilization. There are craters in the middle, which really add to the awe-inspiring-ness of it.
  • We finally make it to Egerton University in Njoro, about 120km from Nairobi. Still have 3G coverage.
  • Flyer for the talk.
  • Fantastic turnout for the talk! The room is PACKED. We team-presented on general Mozilla stuff and Firefox 4, demo’ing features as we went along.
  • Tons of questions, from high-level to fairly technical. The questions really made the trip worth it – a super interested and engaged group.
  • One subject we talked about was that most people don’t understand how the web works, and therefore have skewed expectations of privacy and security. An idea that came out of it was to warn users every time they’re entering passwords and not on an HTTPS site. Kind of like a lighter and fore-warning HTTPS Everywhere.
  • A woman brought up a bug where if you start a download while tabs are loading, you can see all the throbbers stop. Gotta file a bug and figure out what’s blocking there…
  • Alex then presented on Mozilla Kenya. They are a busy crew: new portal site with forums and a “Faces” feature so you can get to know the community, new localization activity. Wow, super impressive.
  • The Mozilla Kenya peeps and the Egerton organizers. I want a banner like that.
  • Long ride back in the van. Dinner at a local spot. Tasted mugali. It’s something you have to learn to love, methinks.

Day 3

  • Morning meeting with the government ICT group was cancelled in true governmental form: 10 minutes beforehand.
  • We headed out to iHub, a co-working space and cafe. I’d heard of iHub because Mark raved about it after Maker Faire Africa last year. Super cool spot – has mix of pay and non-pay programs, and different work areas. Great espresso, fast wifi, downtempo tunes and a beautiful naturally-lit space. I want one in Portland. Hung out for a few hours hacking and chatting.
  • Afternoon presentation at Strathmore University had a scheduling conflict, so that’s cancelled too. Works out because we were able to spend the time preparing for the Firefox 4 release party, and cleaning up the slide deck.
  • Huge turnout at the party, over 200 people. Tons of younger people. Amazing decorations. Emceed by the amazing @g33kmate, who seems to be all places and involved in all cool things in Nairobi.
  • Very little swag, since the box of swag for the party is stuck in customs. This is an ongoing problem. I will not rant here.
  • Mozilla Kenya unveiled their new web portal for contributors! Super slick design, and features like forums and community phonebook. So cool to see how proactive this group is.
  • Pierros and I presented on Mozilla and Firefox 4, and the future. Alex and Mozilla Kenya unveiled the new web portal!
  • A lot of people stuck around chatting afterwards, asking questions. Did a ton of demos Firefox 4, HTML5, Jetpack, dev tools, etc.
  • Everywhere I go, I demo the new Web console in Firefox 4, and developers 1) haven’t heard of it and 2) freak out. We need to be trumpeting this feature more.
  • We mentioned Firefox mobile in the presentation, and a bunch of people asked me why it doesn’t work on the Android phones in Kenya. Turns out that everyone has this phone: The T-Mobile Comet (Huawei Ideos U8150). It’s priced at just under 100USD. The stock browser works fine. Opera works fine. But Firefox doesn’t run on the CPU it’s got. And it probably doesn’t have the memory required for Firefox to run well. These conversations were not fun for any of us. I want to bring Firefox the handsets of people who live in countries where the handset is the primary communication mechanism. We’re not there yet.
  • CAKE.
  • After a run to the store, where we saw some local specialties, headed back to the hotel, got a beer and worked until 3am.

Day 4

  • Some hacking in the morning, then a three hour meet-up with Mozilla Kenya! Very serious group shot.
  • We talked about the Firefox 4 party, what worked and didn’t. How to improve future big events.
  • We planned for how to reach new audiences in Kenya
  • We talked about Swahili localization efforts, and how to get the community involved.
  • Headed back to iHub to hack the afternoon away.
  • That night, we were lucky enough to notice that the first of FOUR Clasicos was on, so were able to watch the whole thing on a big screen in the hotel bar… the room packed with Kenyan supporters of Real. Awkward.

Day 5

  • Safari! Left the hotel around 6am with Cliff and Vicky, in a pop-top van. Headed to Nairobi park, which is a large nature park just outside the city (about 15 minute drive). You gotta get out there early because almost all the animals hide out during the day, and are invisible by 10am.
  • We saw a huge lioness right off the bat. Then water buffalo, Jackson hartebeast, antelope, gazelle, lions, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, black rhinos, warthogs, giant antelopes, impala.
  • Went back to the hotel, caught a nap.
  • Met up with Kennedy, the local Fedora ambassador, for lunch. Ended up walking to the west side of town, more upscale and Indian neighborhood. Had an amazing meal of, well, Indian food… but not like Indian food. There were some typical items – curries, tikkas, masalas. And there was an assortment of “chips” options – french fries that after being fried, are pan-fried in a curry sauce. SPICY.
  • We kicked it at the hotel for a bit more, then talked our way up to the top of a building that looked about the tallest in Nairobi for some sunset pics.
  • Had dinner at Simmers, at William’s recommendation. Beer, tasty grilled chicken, and an Arsenal game. Not a bad evening at all.

Day 6

  • Early talk at AkiraChix, a group focused on empowering women and their use of technology in Kenya. Gave the Firefox 4 presentation, and then talked about things like WoMoz and P2PU, School of Webcraft.
  • No break, straight to the next talk! This was at Nairobits. This is where Vicky went to school, and this place has a *fantastic* vibe. It had some amazing murals, and a couple of rooms full of computers and students. The school is funded mostly by the Samsung “Real Dreams” project. Vicky graduated from there, and is now doing web dev and teaching at various places around the city, and mentoring some of the students at Nairobits. Seems like a fantastic program. I’d love to see Mozilla get involved in these kinds of educational programs, to teach Open Web technologies and values.
  • The talk went well, but every computer in the room already had Firefox 4 on it, so we didn’t really surprise anyone 🙂
  • We grabbed some lunch downtown, and then I headed to the airport for another set of 3 different flights. Optimizing for short layovers on the return trip is possibly not optimal…

Trip Log: Yunnan Province, China

4/2 Kunming, largest city in Yunnan province

4/3 A day in Kunming

4/4 Zhongdian

  • Saw what can only be described as “megahousing” developments outside of Kunming.
  • Factories everywhere, in suburbs outside the city. Saw a red cloud over a valley of factories. Red.
  • Oh look, that is a road. On a cliff along the river. How. The. Hell.
  • Himalayan mountains in the distance? Easily twice as tall as the giant mountains we’re flying over.
  • Land in Zhongdian. Small airport, but clearly new. Full of Tibetan items, and cold-weather gear. It’s COLD.
  • One hour flight, landing at 12,000ft above sea-level. Yeah, we all ended up with mild altitude sickness for the first day. That kinda sucked.
  • Zhongdian was renamed Shangri-La 10 years ago to increase tourism.
  • Yak fields on the way to town.
  • More Jetta cabs. Must be state-mandated.
  • Populace is Tibetan mostly, but many other ethnic minorities present.
  • Pink hat ladies! Scarf tied around hats.
  • Old town. Cobblestone streets. Carved wood structures.
  • Fashion for guys is like 80s bad boy. Or black blazer and slacks… for doing manual labor.
  • Women wearing slave-to-fashion wear, or traditional garb. Not much in between.
  • Lunch spots advertise with bao steamers. Ate at East City North Cooked Wheaten Food King. Had three noodle soups. With yak meat. And dumplings.
  • Land of no salad. Seriously, there’s almost no fresh vegetables in any food we had the whole trip. Always cooked.
  • Last day of Cleaning the Grave holiday. Half the town was in the graveyard as we checked in, lighting off firecrackers by the grave.
  • Checked into the guesthouse. No inside heat in the guesthouses.
  • Meet Alek’s friend Meow Meow (sp?)
  • No running water for 4 months during winter because pipes are frozen.
  • Nightly dancing in both the old-town center, and new-town center. They like to dance.
  • New hotels in new town. I bet they have heat and running water and power all year round.
  • Little Potala palace. Megatemple of Tibetan Buddhism.
  • Shiloh rode a wizardly yak.
  • Yak butter tea. Yak snacks (aka jerky).
  • Tibetan dinner. Creaky wooden restaurant. Cold, only space-heaters. Yak SASHIMI, square noodle soup, meat pie (ground yak).

4/5 Zhongdian

4/6 Zhongdian, Tiger Leaping Gorge

  • Hey, the blankets were quite effective, probably yak wool.
  • Bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge.
  • The hike starts with a nice meandering valley stroll, and nice views.
  • Followed by “24 bends”, a long series of switchbacks.
  • “I smell weed. Or poop.” – Shiloh. It was an old man with grandson in lap, smoking weed out of a long skinny pipe.
  • Ladies along the trail selling bags of weed, saffron and snickers.
  • 7 hours of hiking. Beautiful, amazing views every 5 minutes.
  • Got to Halfway House guesthouse. Sat on the deck, had a beer and checked out the view.
  • Alek has a Chinese name: “Overcoming the power of mugwort”. He’s looking for a new one.
  • Dinner: two mushroom dishes, eggplant, gung pao. Damn.
  • Alek went into the kitchen and found their house-infused baijiao. One was mushroom. Yes, mushroom liquor. The other was olive, papaya, goji berry… and other stuff. Both were surprisingly good.
  • Closed it out with biajiao, beer, tea, cards and Snickers.

4/7 Tiger Leaping Gorge to Lijiang

4/8 Lijiang, Dali

4/9 – Dali

  • Breakfast of bao, black boiled eggs, baba stuffed with carmel sauce.
  • Alec’s out, back to Thailand. All three words of Chinese we know will now be put to the test.
  • Somehow it’s lunch already. Asparagus, tofu, emperor oyster mushrooms with dry-cured ham.
  • Taxi to the cable car. Hike from cable car to chairlift is too long, canceling that. Saw a giant chess set, and a mirror pond.
  • Taxi to the chairlift that we didn’t hike to. Beautiful ride. Look down, oh a grave. Oh look, some more. OHHHHH, thousands of them. Chairlift mountain forest graveyard.
  • At the top, we hike to the Higherland Inn, only thousands of steep steps up the mountain. Zero view. WTF. Head back down the trail to the restaurant with a great view. The place has turtles in a tub… adjacent to all the food that’s on the menu. Hmmm.
  • I got some wild mushrooms. Instructions: soak 3 hours, scramble with egg.
  • Did some shopping in the old city, got some pasta, and headed back to the hotel to chill.
  • Watched a kung fu movie with lots of flying. Saw a commercial for cleavage pills.

4/10 Dali

  • Banana pancakes and fresh melon for breakfast. Off to Xishuang for cormorant fishing.
  • Local market. Saw an awesome computer store. Had noodles that were cut off a giant slab that looked like butter. Found the spice they put on the skewers.
  • Cormorant fishing! Rowed. Sang songs.
  • On the way back, taxi driver took us to the obligatory kickback stop, a marble shop. The Chinese word for marble is “stone from Dali”.
  • Shiloh chilled at the hotel while we rode bikes to the lake. Stopped at a bakery where they had a “selection of mini sandwiches” on the menu. Turns out the mini sandwiches meant “all sandwiches on the menu, put into one”. Fail.
  • Before dinner, got a foot massage, where they had us put our feet in BOILING water.
  • Shiloh got a foot steam bath. Shauna: “OK I can smell foot. It smells like a funk dumpling.”
  • Saw some locals smokin’ tough.
  • Hunted down the wild grilled eggplant for dinner again.

4/11 Back to Kunming

  • Bus to Kunming. Buses here are cheap, and constantly running. Gotta keep your valuables with you. And there’s no bus stops, just people waiting on the side of the highway.
  • Another 5 hours on the road. We passed through Mushroom Town. And went through multi-mile long tunnels.
  • Waited a couple of uneventful hours at the airport, spent our last yuan on tea, and flew home.