Exercise in Chiang Mai means waking with the sun. By 7am it’s still just cool enough to run outdoors. By 8 the full heat of day is already building. I tie on the Merrell barefoot running shoes that are the best footwear I’ve found for travel in hot climates. Super-light, flexible enough to cram in to my single backpack, and as well suited to strolling the walking market and many temples of the city as to running on its highways.
The light is still hazing through moist morning air as I cross the marble foyer of the apartment block. Chiang Mai, like Bangkok, lacks the psychic membranes that demarcate purpose and wealth in Western cities. The broad steps and bubbling fountain of a boutique hotel terminate abruptly in a cracked concrete alleyway walled with rusting corrugated steel. The glistening glass of a shopping mall is skirted by the dirt smeared plastic awnings of street vendors. Lethal black Mercedes with mirror shade windows stop dead in the road for a pack of emaciated wild dogs crossing the six lanes of the Huay Kaew road at their own stubborn trot.
I have doubts about the health benefits of running the stretch of road that connects Chiang Mai’s chic Nimman district with the historic Old Town. It’s the perfect location for a pedestrian writer to explore the city, but there isn’t an alternative exercise option that doesn’t involve the deep inhalation of traffic pollution. I head towards Doi Suthep, the mystic mountain to the west that is Chiang Mai’s best navigation aid. Near the peak of the mountain, where it meets the misted cloud line, are the ever glittering golden towers of a buddhist temple that calls to me every time I glance up from this city.
Huay Kaew is anchored at the city end by the Kad San Kuaew shopping centre, an epic fortress of brickwork some dozen stories high that almost, but not quite, challenges the mystic mountain for dominance of the surrounding skyline. Highrise residences proliferate up the length of Huaeykaw, evidence of the cities fast growing and ever more affluent population. At the intersection of Huaeykaw and Nimmanhaemin a new challenger for king of the shopping malls is clawing its way out of the dirt. A behemoth of white steel and diamond sapphire glass that will, when complete, house the western brands still to infiltrate far in to Chiang Mai. High end car dealerships sell the 4×4 trucks that most Thai’s favour, a reasonable choice given that beyond Chiang Mai’s pocket of metropolitan living the northern highlands are thousands of miles of hardcore jungle.
I am setting a good pace on the first kilometre and heading in to the second. But the street is like running an obstacle course. The basic problem is the pavement, which when it exists at all is a crazy paving of shattered stones, random slopes and steep drops in to the gutter. Then the next problem is the lack of respect for the pavement, which is from the perspective of the SUV driver just a place to park, or an additional lane for the 82 trillion scooters that are the main local transportation. When the pavement runs out it is often at an intersection. Crossing the intersection of two six lane arterial roads is like being a character in an early video game, where poorly timing your move from one platform to another results in death. Lights and road markings, on the rare occasions they exist, are a cause of amusement to Thai drivers. Why would I stop for you? Make me stop! There isn’t a point where the traffic stops. You step in to it and hope it stops. After half a dozen times, you realise you may as well just run across. It’s no more or less insanely dangerous. The run continues.
It’s possible the tuk-tuk drivers like the absent pavements and insane traffic, but they hardly seem a powerful enough lobby to enforce bad pavements as official government policy. Which points the truer cause. Thailand is growing at the full speed of hyper-capitalism. Where that capital pools it forms chic boutique hotels and glittering cathedrals of commerce. But there are no pavements connecting them. Like a body in the early stages of formation, the emerging economy of Thailand is all internal organs, no muscle or bone.
Britain, my home state, is a nation of pavements. The idea of a road without a pavement, indeed, a road without two full pavements, one on either side, stretching its entire length, would be quite likely to spark a national debate and outraged opinion pieces in the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Guardian. It is, quite literally, a more pedestrian country. The pockets of capital are, for now at least, better interconnected by the pavements of society. But of course, the greater freedom of the pedestrian comes at the great frustration of the drivers who want to power their vehicles along roads between shopping malls.
I have no more patience for the pavement. I step in to the road and push a few feet out from the gutter. There’s nothing for upping the pace of a run like an impatient tuk-tuk dogging your heals. In fact, the Thai traffic is rather gracious to runners. They slow and give you space as they pass with a smile and a wave. It’s hard to imagine British drivers happily ceding their road to runners. Thailand won’t give you pavements. But its people will will try hard not to run you down when you step in to their path. I think in the crowded, high speed future where we’re all in the road together, the Thai approach might be the winner.