So many different people have recommended that my family and I go see “Walking Street” in Chiang Mai, that we just had to go. It’s a place where local vendors hawk their wares. We thought we would take a few hours, see what it was all about, then head to church. We were wrong.
We found what we thought must be it and parked just out of range of the several booths that had been set up alongside the road. At the time, several cars were parked in the same place, so we had to parallel park to squeeze into a small place. (“Parallel wedge” might be a better description – inching forward 16 times and back 17.)
That accomplished, we unloaded the herd and headed to a street-side restaurant, had lunch, and then began our walking tour. About two and a half hours passed, and we were running late for church, so we started back toward the car.
But as we got closer to where we remembered parking, my anxiety began to grow. There were a lot more booths than I remembered from a few hours ago. In fact, there weren’t just booths on each side of the street; now they filled the middle of the road, too. Hundreds and hundreds of vendors had brought their goods to sell, and there was maybe enough room for a motorbike to pass between some of them.
Leaving my family behind, I picked up my pace. By the time I reached the car, I was at a nervous trot. Then I saw it … a boat of a car in a sea of angry street-side vendors.
Instinctively, I put my keys back into my pocket so that no one would notice I was the owner. Casually, with a bit of a smirk on my face to indicate how amused I was that someone would be so stupid as to park their car in the middle of this particular road, I passed by my car to survey the prospects of extricating it from the mess it was in.
It was hopeless. I walked 50 yards up the street and only saw a congested series of expensive roadblocks just waiting to be knocked over or crushed under my tires. I tried back the other way – no use. Side streets – no point. Everything was blocked.
So, my wife and I huddled together to work out a plan. Walk the streets for eight hours with three grumpy kids? Nope. Abandon the car to more responsible future owners? Nope. Hide out at the Wawee Coffee Shop until the whole thing blew over? Bingo!
Only one problem: Our laptops were in the trunk. You can’t go to Wawee without your laptops. It would have been a definite giveaway, and by now, everyone within twenty blocks knew about the car. Loudspeakers up and down the street repeatedly called for the owners to make themselves known for a public shaming.
There was no helping it. The laptops had to be recovered. Who was to do it? For a moment, I entertained the fantasy that my wife would volunteer, but that was less likely than us navigating the clogged streets.
So, after kicking the dirt a few times, I coolly walked up to the trunk, inserted the key and received a verbal barrage from the vendor, whose space I was blocking.
Her English was pretty good, actually. I’ll save you the details, but her main point was that this was “WALKING Street!” You don’t park your car on “WALKING Street!” As politely as I could, I asked her if she could help me find a way out, but at this point, she said,
“I’m not talking to you!”
… and turned away for a moment. Then, she started yelling at me again.
With tail between my legs, I returned to my wife, who was busy pretending not to notice me and trying to forget that we’ve been married for 15 years and have three children together.
I gave her the laptop and told her to give the kids a good home and a good life; I was going back to the car to endure my fate. No tears or long embraces marked our parting, just a hasty retreat, laptop bag in tow.
Returning to the car, I noticed quite a crowd had assembled. They weren’t exactly an angry mob, but it was still too light out for the torches to be fired up. They stood around the car discussing ways to get their lost earnings out of it. Melt it down and recycle it?
Paint indigenous art on it and charge admission? Convert it into the first four-wheeled tuk-tuk and transport tourists around the city? It was either going to be one of these, or they were going to tie me to the hood as a warning to other irritating interlopers.
Keeping my head low, I put the keys in the lock, avoiding any eye contact that might trigger the mob mentality. I had no idea what I was going to do once I got into the car – maybe just gun it and hope for the best. But to my surprise, as soon as I slid into the driver’s seat, a policeman emerged from nowhere.
I honestly believe he was an angel sent from God – with a bit of a twisted sense of humor.
He led my parade the full hundred yards or so, making vendors pick up their wares and give way to the funny farang (local word for clueless foreigners). He directed foot traffic and helped roll carts out of the way – even picked up and moved a motorcycle for me. But the entire time, he insisted on pointing me out to the people lining the parade route.
“There he is! There’s the one you’ve been hearing about on the loudspeakers! I’ve captured the monster!”
Then he got out his cell phone to call his law-enforcement friends and share the story.
With my window down to hear his directions, I was treated to one-hundred yards of slow-moving humble pie. Locals and foreigners alike laughed at me.
To their credit, no one threw produce at me. No one tried to pull me bodily from the car to subject me to a public beating. No one shot out my tires. Most got a good laugh as I confirmed all their assumptions about farangs living in Chiang Mai, but it wasn’t a mean-spirited laugh.
The only one who spit fire was the woman whose parcel of street I blocked. I made it to the end of Walking Street with all my appendages, and the officer was too amused to even give me a ticket.
True to their reputation as people of the “Land of Smiles,” almost all the Thais grinned at me (about me) as I passed. I lost a little face, but I had some extra to give. And I learned a good lesson: It’s called “Walking” Street for a reason.
This post was originally published in Feb. 2008 on Michael’s personal blog, Build Your Walls! Guard Your Gates!