Learning to live here

We’ve done two things this week that make me feel like we’re making the adjustment to life in a new country: renewed our car insurance and registration, and navigated non-emergency medical care.

When you buy a used car here, the registration/taxes and insurance generally come with it. So even though we bought our car in July, we didn’t have to do anything about those until this month. I’ve heard horror stories about going to the tax office and waiting in line, only to find out you’re missing this insurance form or that inspection certificate. Needless to say, this has not been something we’ve looked forward to doing. But a friend happened to mention having her insurance renewed just a few weeks ago. We got her agent’s name and location and headed out to find him a few days ago.

Side note: in Thailand, it generally doesn’t do any good to try to make a phone call in order to set up this kind of thing. Even if you can speak the language (or have someone to make the call for you), in the long run it’s usually more efficient to just get in your car and go to wherever it is so you can ask your questions in person. And don’t even think about sending an email. That’s usually a total exercise in futility.

Anyway. We had a little trouble finding the place, but a few texts with my friend got us straightened out. Once there, we were thrilled to learn that he would take care of almost everything for us. All we had to do was go and get our car inspected, and he told us exactly where to go to have that done. (And no, he’s not getting a cut from the mechanic. The fees are regulated so it doesn’t really matter where you go–he just asked where we live and told us the nearest place to us.) We took the certificate back to him and he is handling the rest, including going to the tax office. We just have to go pick up our new window sticker in a couple of days. So there’s a big item checked off the to-do list! 🙂

It’s kind of ironic that getting emergency medical care was way simpler than getting routine care. When Tim was so sick right after we got here, I called a friend who picked him up and took him straight to the emergency room of the hospital with the reputation for handling farang well (and having a lot of English-speaking staff). He was seen and admitted promptly, with very little confusion or complication. Dealing with insurance and payment at the end of his stay was a total pain, but at least actually getting the care wasn’t so hard.

I have a thyroid condition that needs annual monitoring. It’s time for my annual check, which means bloodwork and an ultrasound of the thyroid. I did send an email a few weeks ago and in this situation (with an American doctor) it actually did help. He told me which days he’s in the hospital clinic and to just stop in, no appointment needed. He’s at a different hospital than Tim was in, so I was not at all familiar with it. Long story short, between finding parking (a quarter of a mile away), finding my way through the registration system, and waiting time, I was there for nearly four hours. On the bright side, I saw the doctor, had my blood drawn, and got my ultrasound done. The technician even told me the ultrasound result on the spot–everything is as it should be. All for a grand total of about $65. I guess I shouldn’t complain too much.

So anyway, just managing those two things makes me feel like we’re really living here, not just visiting. Next up: driver’s licenses. Which requires a notarized document from the U.S. Embassy and a doctor’s note just to get in the door, then you have to pass the reflexes test, written test, and vision test. Not looking forward to that!

Thai Language Lessons

We’ve finally started learning the language! We have a tutor who comes to our house three times a week. Every Monday, Thursday, and Friday she spends an hour with the three girls, then two hours with Tim and me. I taught her the idiom “like drinking from a fire hose”– that’s exactly what these lessons are.

I am SO glad Tim and I learned the Thai alphabet on our own before starting lessons. We used two different resources for that: Manee and Friends and this Android app. Both have been incredibly helpful. Manee and Friends is like a Thai Dick and Jane, a beginning reader that used to be commonly used in Thai schools. Apparently it’s been out of print for many years, but someone has used it to make a 22-lesson website complete with audio. The app, called “Thai Script,” is fantastic. I have no idea if it’s available for iWhatever.

The girls are enjoying their classes so far. They are learning basic conversational Thai and beginning to learn writing the Thai letters. The Thai alphabet is kind of complicated. There are 44 consonants, though a few of them aren’t used anymore. Vowels… it depends on how you count them. There are 15 different symbols, but they can be combined to make over 28 different sounds. But again, I think some aren’t used. Vowels can be placed before, after, above, or below a consonant–or a combination of before, after, and/or above. Oh, and then there are four tone marks. And just to make it extra interesting, there are no spaces between words.

Every consonant has a “thing” that goes with it. So for example, ? is the first letter of the alphabet. When used in a word it’s pronounced roughly “Gaw.” Its name,  ? ???, is pronounced “gaw-gai” (more or less, it’s hard to equate it to English sounds). “Gai” means chicken, so it would be like saying A-apple for the first letter of the English alphabet. 

Today the girls were learning to write the letter ?, the object for which is water buffalo (khaw-kwai). So this is what we came up with: 

I’ve pared down some of our other homeschool subjects so I can spend more time on Thai with the girls (and on my own). It’s a constant balancing act! We’ve scaled back to doing copywork in place of most of our language arts subjects. It’s a great way to teach and reinforce proper grammar, spelling, mechanics, and syntax. For right now I’m using George Washington’s “Rules of Civility.” It fits right in with our American history studies, and they’re great little sayings to live by! Today’s sentence: 

When in company, put not your hands to any part of the body, not usually discovered.

Good advice, no? 😉 

The post that took three times as long as it should have

I thought that once we got here, I’d be blogging all the time. There’d be so many fascinating stories to tell, amazing pictures to share, I’d never run out of great material. It hasn’t quite been like that.

It seems like a lot of our time has been taken up with just… figuring things out. How to buy a car. How to rent a house. How to drive. How (and where) to shop. Everything has a learning curve to it. And there’s a basic rule of thumb here that everything will take about three times as long as you think it should, whether that’s paying a bill or picking up groceries.

But I do feel like we’re getting settled in, slowly. I was able to sign the girls up for a gymnastics class which was a huge triumph. That was something we’d talked about before we even moved here, thinking that in Thailand it would be more affordable than in the U.S. It took us a couple of months, but I finally found out about a class that had been arranged for expat kids and was able to get the girls into it two days a week. They love it! The gym is less than 7 km away from us, only about a 20 minute drive to get there. Getting home takes much longer, sometimes up to 45 minutes. Not only do we have to deal with rush-hour traffic getting home, but there are loads of one-way streets all over Chiang Mai. Sometimes we have to drive several kilometers in order to turn around and get going the right way! Everything goes the right way for getting to the gym, but getting home… not so much. 🙂

Traffic engineering here can really boggle the mind sometimes. There are some things that are great, like underpasses for through traffic at busy intersections. Other things are insane, like what I call The Roundabout from Hell. This is a roundabout that I approach from the east. My destination is a driveway that is on the north side of the roundabout. The challenge (aside from the normal challenges of Thai driving–like nebulous lanes and motorcycles zipping around like mosquitoes) is that oncoming traffic really doesn’t enter the roundabout. The eastbound lanes just go straight, with the roundabout sticking out like a growth. They don’t need to slow down or merge at all. I need to cross that traffic to get to the driveway, without getting rear-ended by the cars behind me that are continuing westbound or the ones coming in from the street that joined the roundabout from the south (especially those that are continuing around to the east), or cutting off any motorcycles that were planning on staying to my right while going through to the west. Fun times. I get to do this twice a week, as that’s the entrance to the stadium complex where the gymnastics classes are held.

I would add a picture to this post, but the internet’s running slowly today and the upload would take three times as long as it should.

Observations from our first five weeks here

Some random and unrelated thoughts…

We’ve been in Chiang Mai for over five weeks now. In some ways this still feels like a vacation, but getting into our own house is changing that. While we were subleasing we were basically living out of suitcases and boxes. That made it feel like living in a hotel, more or less. Now that we’re settling in, unpacking, and trying to figure out a daily routine we’re losing the hotel feeling. There are a few boxes still to unpack but most of our things are now put away. Now if only I could remember where I put everything!

We all like it here. The girls have each said that they want to go back to Florida to visit, but not to live. That may change over time but it’s really encouraging for now.

One of these things is not like the others…

It’s been especially interesting for the kids to sort of change roles as far as “fitting in” to society. In the states our family tended to stick out in a crowd. People would notice Ellie and Bethany because they often looked different than most of the people around us. Now they blend in with the crowds and Tim, Micah and I are the ones who are noticed. Total strangers will pet Micah’s hair, which she likes. Anything to be the center of attention for that girl! Thais will often start speaking to Bethany and Ellie, assuming that they’re also Thai and speak the language. We do still get curious looks and the “Are they all yours?” question, either through words or through gestures. But I think Ellie and Bethany are really enjoying being part of the norm. Ellie’s even commented how nice it is that people on billboards look like her.

We have received such an amazing welcome. Two families in particular have been incredibly kind and helpful, especially when Tim was in the hospital. They took care of the girls, shuttled me around since I was still afraid to drive, and made sure that we had everything we needed. It’s been humbling to hear them giving thanks to God for us being here, as they’ve prayed for a long time for someone to come and fill this position.

I think it’s pretty cool to see plants that I’ve long been familiar with as exotic house plants growing in my yard. It’s also pretty cool to have tropical fruits growing in my yard and neighborhood. I have a banana tree in my yard, and just walking down the street I can see mangos, pomegranates, limes, and other tropical fruit hanging over the walls.

It’s hot here. Not as hot as Florida or even the Midwest these days, but ohmygoodness it’s humid. Our house has a/c in the bedrooms only. We turn it on in the girls’ rooms every night to help them sleep (both for the temperature/humidity and to mask noise from outside) but we can usually just leave the windows open and a fan on in ours. But earplugs are a necessity when the windows are open. If it’s not the dogs and cats in the middle of the night, it’s the birds at the crack of dawn! The sun here is just as intense as Florida, maybe even more so. But there are a lot more clouds here so it doesn’t always feel that way.

Not all Thai food is spicy. But food that’s Thai hot can melt your face if you’re not used to it. My heat tolerance is increasing but I’m nowhere near Thai hot yet. I can take a bite or two of that before I want to cry. Ellie has a great heat tolerance and is willing to try just about anything. Bethany and Micah can generally find something they like no matter where we go. Street food is great, and fruit shakes are awesome.

I miss the beach. But I think it’s pretty neat to almost always have mountains within view. 

 It’s fun to be able to indulge in little things like pedicures. When they cost all of $5 and change, it’s something we can have fun with once in a while.


Edited to add: I’m posting almost every day on Facebook, including lots of pictures. Make sure to friend me there if you haven’t already! 

New City, New House

We’ve been promising our Facebook friends pictures of the house we’re going to be renting but I thought it would be better to post them here instead of just there. That way I can do a a little more explaining and describing.

Before I show you the house, let me put it in context by telling you a little bit of what I know about Thai houses in general. Most (including ours) do not have central air conditioning. Instead, they are designed to make the most of airflow and natural cooling. All the houses we’ve looked at, and most of the houses we’ve seen even just driving around, are built of bricks or cement block covered with plaster or stucco. Pretty much everything has a roof of terracotta tiles. There are lots of windows on all sides of the house to bring in the breezes. There are usually very large roof overhangs so that the windows can stay open during the cooling rains. The roof overhangs can make houses look much bigger from the outside than they actually are. Pretty much all houses also have bars on the windows and sometimes the doors. My guess is that this is because the windows are left open most of the time. Bars on the windows don’t indicate anything about a neighborhood’s crime rate.

There aren’t any garages, but most homes have carports. This isn’t just for parking the car; it also makes for a place to dry the laundry during rains. It’s a also good place to leave shoes, as Thai culture requires removing shoes before entering a home. There’s most often a small covered porch or patio area at the back of the house as well, usually off the kitchen. That’s where the washing machine, cleaning supplies, tools, etc. are generally kept.

All homes have a wall around the property with a large rolling gate at the driveway. I think this is just the custom, but it’s definitely good for keeping the stray dogs out (and there are lots of those).

Homes aren’t carpeted. We’ve seen tile and wood floors in equal quantities. Our new home has tile downstairs and wood (actually laminate) upstairs.

Okay, now that I’ve said all that, here’s our house!

Our guess is that it’s about 1400 square feet, with three bedrooms and three bathrooms. It’s got a full kitchen, which not all Thai homes have. The front door (under the archway to the right) leads directly into the living room.

That’s the living room and front doors. This house is what I’d call semi-furnished. It comes with that little wicker set in the living room (small loveseat, two chairs, small table) and some other furniture which you’ll see in the next pictures.

The living room is open to the dining room:

Nice that it comes with a table and chairs. My back is toward the front door here. This is the view to my left:

That didn’t focus (it was pretty dim) so I’ll keep it smaller. But there’s a bathroom to the right, and a closet under the stairs to the left. Straight ahead is the kitchen.

I’m looking at the back of the house, kitchen door on my right. There’s a door behind me that leads into the carport. This is a really big kitchen by Thai standards. Most Thai houses don’t have built-in kitchen cupboards, so this is great. They also seldom have a stand-alone stove, just a one- or two-burner cooktop that sits on the counter. We are lucky to have a three-burner cooker and even an oven. We also have a decent-sized refrigerator, which is to my left but not pictured. (Actually a lot of Thai houses don’t have kitchens, but just an outdoor cooking area.)

Even though we have built-in cupboards, we’ll need to get a stand-alone unit for storing food. Apparently the bugs will get into the cupboards but there are special food cabinets that do better at keeping them out. That will go in the space next to the stove.

The stairs are really pretty. 🙂  Upstairs are three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The bedrooms all have individual air conditioners. It’s pretty hard to get a decent picture of a bedroom so I’m not going to post them. There are two smallish bedrooms, each about eleven feet square. One comes with a double bed and wardrobe (there are no built in closets here), the other is empty. The master bedroom is bigger and comes with a bed and storage cabinets.  We’ll be replacing the mattress–it looks like it’s seen better days–but the bed frame is fine so we’ll keep that.

Here’s another little tidbit about Thai houses. Most don’t have hot water piped through the house. Ours is no exception. The showers each have their own heating unit (which is typical), but there is no hot water in any of the sinks including the kitchen. Often the shower is just a sprayer on the wall in the bathroom, no curtain or tub to keep it contained. This house is nice in that all of the showers have a rail where we can hang a curtain, and one even has a small bathtub.

Speaking of water, you can’t drink it from the tap. Most people have drinking water delivered in large bottles, which is what we’ll be doing. Tap water is fine for cooking (as long as it boils), cleaning, bathing, and brushing teeth. But most people still have a whole-house filtration system just to get sediment out.

We have the keys to the house already but we can’t move in until after July 1. Obviously we need to get quite a lot of furnishings so it will probably take us a couple of weeks after that before we’re actually living there. We didn’t ship anything over so we’re starting from scratch: linens, dishes, cookware, you name it. But that’s another story!

We have a nice yard, big enough for the kids to play and big enough to get a dog.

Front yard
Side yard–it’s a corner lot

The girls are really excited about that! It will be an all-outside dog, which is really common here. It’ll be good to have a watchdog to help keep the strays away.

This is the back of the house. The silver tank is a reservoir. Until about a month ago this neighborhood had community water. Apparently at times it could be inadequate, so everyone has a reservoir like this as a backup. We were just hooked up to city water so hopefully that won’t be an issue. The blue is the filtration system, I think. We’ll be getting a washing machine that will go out here too. That’s the window over the kitchen sink at the right.

The other side of the house, facing the front. I think that might be a banana tree to my right. That would be yummy!

Our new house is in the same moo baan (neighborhood) as the house we’re currently subleasing, called Suan Non Si (I don’t know what that translates to). We really like it here. There’s a good mix of farang (foreigners) and Thai, lots of trees, a great little restaurant creatively named Ah Han Thai (“Thai Food”) that even delivers, and a nice little coffee shop.

So there you have it.