We love malls. In a new country, it’s usually our first outing. “Let’s to to the mall!” says Dan. There are rarely any objections. Malls represent a very easy entry into the new culture. You can walk around aimlessly without fear of getting too lost, nor fear of being run over by crazy taxi drivers, and it’s a very quick summary of what’s new, what’s familiar and what there is to eat.
I was so surprised at the great malls here in Chiang Mai, and I have heard the ones in Bangkok are even more impressive (add to the “to do” list!). The malls are large, bright, clean, easy to find and numerous. They always have multiple food courts, including sit-down restaurants, traditional food courts (the way Americans would picture them) and also “Food Parks”, which is a new concept for us.
But malls are not the only place for retail here. The street markets are jaw-dropping and endless. The little stores tucked into alleyways are adorable. And there’s even an outlet mall! I’m in my happy place! Too bad I only have one suitcase and have no need for 99% of this stuff.
But for the sake of our loyal readers, I have done some important blog research (that’s what I told Dan anyway) and will share a few observations about retail here…
Reuseable Grocery Bags
Remember that blog post where I complained about needing all those reuseable grocery bags in Europe? Well, I’m sorry for the unkind things I said. They don’t have many reusable bags here and I miss them. I have so many plastic grocery bags I don’t know what to do with them all. I use them as trash can liners and our maeban (housekeeper) likes to roll them up nice and tight and organize them. OK, that works. But I still picture them all floating around the ocean and some large sea animal mistakes them for a jelly fish and eats them and gets very very ill, leading to the extinction of that animal. All because I was too forgetful or lazy to carry my own bag. I think I need a hobby because overthinking things is just getting old. #anyway
Before we got the car and we were doing our grocery shopping with the help of Uber, it was a family affair. This was for the mere fact that I needed all those hands to carry bags out onto the street to play the “Where’s Uber going to pick us up today?” game. That was also the time when we were buying water at the store since we had not yet set up the water truck delivery service. There were some exasperated sighs from the matriarch, I’ll be honest. The car has aided us so nicely in this area.
We try to eat like a Thai person a lot. It’s yummy and cheap and fast. In the basement (usually) of the malls is where you’ll find the grocery store and one of the food park areas. We learned that most of these food parks have a unique system of payment. You go to the front desk and get a card where you add money to it, then when you order your food, you give your card to the vendor and he scans it and it deducts the payment. Well isn’t that handy! I guess it saves all the vendors from having to handle money, which is good from a logistics, safety and cleanliness standpoint. The first two times I messed up this procedure and handed them cash. Typical Thai friendliness and not going to scold you, they just paused, smiled, disappeared for a long time with my money, then came back with change. It was only through my finely tuned detective skills (read: Dan figured it out and told me) that I learned of the card system.
Now that I have the card, I was hoping to use the same card at all the different places at different malls. No, it’s not that easy. Each place has its own card. And in addition, the other day when I went to put 400 THB on it ($12), they gave me 4 cards. FOUR! So now I have 4 cards from one place, 1 card from another and several cards from another! The nice thing about this system is that I can give a card to each child and they can wander off and get their own food. The not nice thing is that I have to carry them all, I have to remember if there is enough balance, and the drink vendor is in a different area. So it feels like you’ve gone on a treasure hunt… you round up all your food and drink and condiments and utensils, then you finally sit down to your meal and one or another family member is in an entirely different stage of that process. I’ve determined that Food Parks are best for solo dining.
They also love their loyalty cards here. There are loyalty cards and then there is this one tourist card that earns you points, which then you can redeem for more stuff. Like we really need more stuff! But we like the savings. So we got that card too. But Dan and I each got a card at different times, unknowingly, so now we are always trying to remember which card to use to build up the earnings. Pretty sure we’ll forget all about it when it comes time to cash in the points.
That’s a video game reference for those of you without video game playing teens. Some of the big malls have an interesting way of organizing their stores. They actually organize them by store category! This means there’s a floor for fashion, a floor for tech, a floor for banks and music and a floor for other stuff. Isn’t that nifty? I guess they don’t subscribe to the American “Spread it all out so we can allow for maximum money spending on stuff you didn’t plan to get” theory. It’s handy, I do admit. They also freely send you to their competitors if they cannot help you.
When we were house hunting we checked out a “Chinese House” (named by the agent) that was built with very few straight lines. I guess bad luck travels in a straight line. Well, we would not want bad luck at a mall! Most of the malls here are very compartmentalized. The mall we frequent most often, across from our house, has multiple different sections that do not connect. I still can’t remember which section my favorite restaurants are in. And after going to the mall 4 times, I stumbled across a new section I had never seen before… with a massage spa! I now know that section well.
In addition, if you stand in what you think is the center and look left and right, you don’t see a lot of the stores, which are around a corner, tucked back into a section that doesn’t have any visibility. I honestly don’t know how those stores stay in business, but I guess they manage somehow because they are there and ready to help you part with your money.
Show Me The Money
Speaking of money… we like the money here. We are good at our multiplication and division by 3’s. The exchange rate is about 33 Thai Baht to 1 dollar. So 100 TBH is $3. Pretty easy. And we love the money itself. Most of it is in bills, with a few coins. That is awesome for the wallet. They take cards in a lot of places here, but we are learning that there is usually a minimum amount required. This is not unusual, although in Europe some places ONLY took cards, so we are learning that’s not the case here. Best to have cash on ya.
Panama and Thailand have the same climate, and therefore the same growing options. I say options because Panama has a very different culture in terms of food. They do not seem to like new things. In fact when the girls were planning to sell popcorn at a Panamanian festival, they were told to only sell it with butter and salt. We thought Panamanians might enjoy a cinnamon and sugar variety but we were told by multiple locals to stick with what they love: butter and salt. Here in Thailand, it’s very different. Of course, they have traditional dishes of Thai food, but there are restaurants of so many different nations and varieties, it’s amazing. And it’s not just farang (westerners) who eat there: Thai people seem to love KFC, and McDonalds, and everything in between! My Uber told me that his favorite restaurant is KFC. The other day at one of the American restaurants, there was a huge table of Thai people devouring pizzas. I love their diverse tastes. Don’t tell them that pizza is Italian.
I have a favorite sushi place here, which is a cross between a sushi track, a sushi buffet and a fondue place. But the unique thing is, it’s all you can eat. What?? Anyway, they give you very hot soup and on the track you have raw meat and veggies that go around. You pick your raw meat and cook it in the soup that is heated at your table on the built in burner. It’s a really fun experience and I shared it recently with a new friend, but we were surprised when they told us that we had to leave after 90 minutes. Don’t they understand that new friends like to chat for more than 90 minutes? But I guess they felt like we needed to take our chat elsewhere and even though there were plenty of open tables, we were told to leave. No four-hour sushi bingeing allowed, I guess.
The night markets have plenty of food vendors but they tend to be the “eat and walk” kind. I’m not fond of those other than for snacking, but one time we found a food court type market with tables and chairs in the center. This one had more of an international flavor with tons of different options like sushi and burgers and meat and spicy grilled cheese sammiches and Vietnamese food and everything else you can imagine. This was a fun one. And I’m not just saying that because they had massages for $3 for 30 minutes.
Night Market Shopping
We went to a night market a few weeks ago. Then we went to a different one (called the Walking Street). Then a week later we found yet another one. They take place at night probably to beat the heat of the day. They are lit up, most of them are closed to traffic, open for your shopping pleasure until midnight and they are filled with crazy interesting things, super cheap prices and art and food that go on and on. I absolutely love the night markets and one day I will ditch the fam and go all by myself to truly wander and explore. The “Look Mom!” can get exhausting and sometimes Mom wants to look at things by herself (read: shop without little voices asking “Mom are you sure you need that? What will Dad say? How are you going to fit that in your suitcase?” Little voices need to go away. There WILL be a suitcase filled with special Thai treasures when Zoe and I go to Alaska in November.)
Jenga Parking Garage
For the most part, the malls are easy to get to. The Thai traffic can be bad at certain times of the day and stop lights tend to be excruciatingly long. Thai roads also use the U-turn system a lot, so if the mall is on the other side of the street you can expect to pass it, go a fair distance and then do a U turn to get back. But they have clearly marked entrances and they all have parking garages that seem to have plenty of room, at least when we go. But when the parking spots dry up, they rely on the jenga method of parking. We saw this sign at the parking garage at our nearby mall. I did a double take. Does it really mean what I think it means? See if you can figure it out.
Evidently, in order to utilize every square inch of space, they allow double parking of sorts. But they’d hate for someone to be stuck there, so if you’d kindly leave your car in neutral, we’ll just push it out of the way if we need to. No harm, no foul. I have yet to see someone actually moving a car but it’s got to be fascinating. Our car is automatic so we aren’t sure how that works. So far we have not parked in one of the Jenga spots.
Ladies also have their own spot. And it’s strictly enforced since these spots are within a few feet of the entrance to the mall. In case you can’t read the conditions… you have to be a lady alone, a lady with a bunch of other ladies or if you do have any males with you, they must be under 12 years old. Otherwise, keep moving. I wonder if “lady boys” are included. Hmmm. Methinks the mall management is encouraging ladies to shop without their husbands. Smart. Very smart.
Familiar Stores…. Thai Style
We have found a few familiar stores here. They don’t have WalMart but they have something similar (Big C) so that helps when we need a few more things to round out our kitchen supplies. We discovered a home store called Baan and Beyond (baan is the Thai word for “home” – too funny) and that was a great place. They have an OfficeMart (pretty much Office Depot), a HomePro (Home Depot-ish) and we found the Thai Costco the other day (Makro). It is not called Costco and does not have Costco products, but it has Costco type “warehouse” shopping. It’s membership only, huge quantities and some imported items. Although, they have a little slip that says “day pass” that they give people who don’t appear to know how to speak Thai and rather than try to coach the farang into how to become a member, they just hand you a day pass and you get to use the store free of charge. Nice system! We certainly don’t need a lot there but we did find it to be a great place for ground beef and cheddar cheese, both of which is hard to find in regular stores and both of which costs its weight in gold. Every day I say a thank you prayer to New Zealand and Australia for providing Thailand with beef and cheese and cream for our consumption.
So for a family that doesn’t need to shop much, we are certainly making our way around the stores in this city. When you browse malls and markets you learn a lot about the culture, as well as what they think tourists will like. But one of the things I love is that it’s not just tourists at these places, you actually see more Thai people than farang or visitors. Just one of the many things we love about it here.
So if the elephants haven’t yet convinced you to come, maybe the shopping will do the trick. Bring an empty suitcase and leave some wall space for the awesome elephant art. And if you need someone to take you around to the markets, I am available. Dan is busy, though.