Different Spokes Chiang Mai Report, part 2

Roy (right) in Prachuap Khiri Khan with other stranded cyclists

Here is more on Roy Shachter’s life in Thailand with the latest chapter, his forced shelter-in-place in Prachuap Khiri Khan in the south of that country.

My life in Thailand continues to be good. Last year I traveled a total of eight weeks to Bali in Indonesia, and to Malaysia and Taiwan. This year, I had hoped to do more international and domestic travel – possibly to Laos, Burma or Vietnam and maybe to California in the Fall, if things dramatically improve in the U.S. and elsewhere. But I am now seeing that travel this year, even if things ease up substantially, could still be higher risk than best for me. Unfortunately I am clearly in the demographic of being at higher risks of severe complications due to age and underlying health conditions should I become infected. With that in mind I am taking many of the recommended precautions without 100% isolating myself. Since I am staying in a hotel for a couple of months, I buy prepared food to eat in my room and I try to handle that with care. However I don’t try to disinfect everything I bring home, which would be quite tedious. Without a kitchen or sufficient counter or storage space such precautions while not impossible are particularly difficult.

Fortunately so far no infections have been reported in this town where I am staying temporarily unlike the situation in Chiang Mai, where I have a rented townhouse. In Chiang Mai the number of infections is still relatively low and the last few days no additional cases have been reported. So far I’ve been able to adjust to changes without experiencing hardship but rather only inconveniences.

My biggest challenge are the limits to social connections. My choice to live in Thailand included many factors, one being the relative ease in meeting people and the friendliness of Thai people. Now I rarely try to engage persons I don’t know, even with my mask on. I don’t know who feels comfortable having me near them particularly since foreigners have been vilified here in the media as bringing the virus here and not taking sufficient precautions to prevent infection. As an example, many foreigners including myself rejected using face masks based on recommendations by international health experts while Thais more widely adapted to using masks albeit hardly universally. Now that some of our home countries have reversed course on this, attitudes are changing. Additionally in many areas here it is mandatory when out in public. I have a few N95 masks I purchased last year for protection from the bad air quality in Chiang Mai – and now temporarily staying at the coast where the air is far better, I don’t need this level of protection. So I use a cloth-sponge material mask, with a very small amount of essential oils to make it less unpleasant. I will save my N95 masks for my return to Chiang Mai, for safer travel or in case I am forced to leave here before the air quality improves in Chiang Mai.

I felt a great sadness yesterday as I was cycling around that my opportunities to meet and chat with Thai people has been greatly restricted. Social distancing obviously greatly decreases face to face social interaction, something I had planned to enjoy frequently during my two months away from my home in Chiang Mai. Usually I am often fine to be mostly alone for two or three days. But now for weeks at a time it is much more difficult. If anything this helps to better understand the severity of punishing people with solitary confinement. My situation is immensely better than that with many freedoms still. Being confined alone for 23+ hours/day must be extremely psychologically damaging to most persons. But as so many of us are experiencing I do have times of loneliness. So far though this has not been a big problem. I keep in touch with my expat friends in Chiang Mai, mostly American and Brits via the Line app on my phone, which is the preferred messenger app here used by nearly everyone. They are all hunkered down in their apartments in Chiang Mai except for forays out for food, etc, and a few still get together occasionally trying to adhere to recommended precautions. I also keep in touch with friends and family in the USA, Spain, Australia and Latin America via Facebook Messenger and email and chat with some Thai friends using messaging apps – usually in English, mixed with Thai language. I have also enjoyed a couple of video calls and will try to do more of these.

One other interesting note about Thai culture: theft and street crime is rare here. It does exist but compared to the several cities where I have lived in the U.S. and Latin America, or traveled to elsewhere, it feels incredibly safe here. As an example, in Chiang Mai bicycles are usually locked with a cable lock, some pencil thin. Even the thicker cables would be cut in a flash back in the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere but not here. Additionally people routinely use the lock only through their wheels, without securing the bike to a stationary object – contrary to essential theft prevention practices elsewhere – even for higher cost bikes. I am still amazed. I have inadvertently left my bike unlocked for hours at a time in an apartment house bike parking area and elsewhere, without problems. In the U.S. I would be shocked at my carelessness as I would be lucky to still find my bicycle untouched. Here though I shrug my shoulders and remind myself I should try to be a little more careful. Also I leave all my bike accessories on my bike when I lock it up to go inside somewhere – helmet, three bike lights, and a pannier. I long ago learned the hard (and expensive) way not to leave those things out back home – but here no matter, no thefts.

Having become quite accustomed to this, on this trip I stayed for a few days in Hua Hin, rented a bike and hung my helmet, which I had brought from Chiang Mai, on the handlebars without looping the cable through the helmet straps as I do in the U.S. Lo and behold, after being in a café a couple of hours, my helmet, along with the expensive helmet mirror, had been stolen. I was aghast – I had thought that doesn’t happen here in Thailand – although I wouldn’t make that assumption in Bangkok. I felt anger, more a great disappointment and a loss of innocence. No longer would I be able to let down my guard and assume theft is nearly non-existent. So now I do lock the helmet, but I still leave the other accessories in place. Anyway here in Prachuap I think it is a lot safer than in Hua Hin, which raises another potentially troubling issue: the shutdowns and lock-downs have caused an enormous amount of unemployment and loss of income especially for people with their own small businesses including the tens of thousands of food stalls and food carts. There is a rising concern that this could result in more crime – due to desperation, with the economic margin of safety and government assistance inadequate to meet many people’s needs. I think I’ll need to be more careful now, and also try to be more generous when I can help someone in an appropriate way.