Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Chiang Mai, productivity, and the need for fixity

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I have been in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks. We have entered February and I have begun to feel the need, urgent and rising, to start getting my nose to the grindstone.

January was taken by time spent in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand. And it was a wonderful month.

The time I’ve spent in Chiang Mai, so far, has been good. I have succumbed to all the sensations this country, and city, is so well-equipped to provide. But I remember now why I didn’t quite gel with this place in the first place (I first visited Chiang Mai in 2016). It’s to do with the blissfully chilled-out vibe; the sultry heat; the jungle air. This place pulses with a certain energy, like a powerful narcotic, that makes it extremely difficult — for me at least — to be productive.

It really does feel like straining against a strong drug, or a seductive spell, that has slipped over me, and I need to fight and make enormous effort in order to break free of this enchantment. As a freelancer, and a traveling one, I need to work and to slip back into productive schedules otherwise I can kiss this lifestyle goodbye.

Different people gravitate towards different energies. Some people fall in love with Chiang Mai: attracted to its wonderful combination of nature, cafes, traveller, hippie/Thai qualities. Although many people have remarked that my own personality would be a good fit for this place (I generally seem laidback, easy-going, and even, perhaps, lazy) it is a misjudgement. I find myself leaning more towards grittier, dirtier places with dynamism to spare. There are limits. Manila, capital of the Philippines, probably has too much grit than I can take.

But Beijing, where I was based for six years, was gritty and dirty, until it was cleaned up in the past few years. Most travellers are not very fond of Bangkok, preferring natural Chiang Mai or the lazy paradise islands of the south, but I like Bangkok and its superior energy, the pace, the grittiness of its daily life.

Chiang Mai has wreaked havoc on my productivity and I find myself wanting to leave this place.


Last year, when I travelled to five different places over four months, my most productive time was spent in Taipei, Taiwan. There’s a good reason for this. I was living in a hostel, which I ended up staying in for over a month. The hostel allowed residents to be quite self-sufficient and I quickly found local landmarks. I fell into a routine. Oolong tea to wake up with, brewed in the common area at my hostel. Go out for a sweet potato bought from the nearby convenience store for breakfast. Walk around for a bit. Return to the hostel to work, or else head to a nearby café to work. Lunch at a local cafeteria which was cheap as chips. Have a bubble tea in the afternoon. Nap. Or swim at the local gym. Evening, head to the night market for dinner. Night-time: work in the kitchen of my hostel, which was quiet and low-ceilinged, and which was conducive to long bouts of writing.

The month I spent in Singapore was also fairly productive; ditto for the half-month I spent in Seoul. But Taipei was king of a productive me.

I find myself in want of this kind of schedule now. I will continue to travel, but I am aware that I may need to make some kind of big change. To find a spot to settle in, in order so I can work and achieve the goals that are important to me. I cannot stay in Chiang Mai. This place destroys my sense of achieving goals. But today, I am faring better, as I write this blog post. But having a fixity — a fixed place; a stable routine — is something I will need to find again. But where shall I go? What city shall I call my temporary home? This is the other question that haunts me. Recommendations welcome.

My writing life

I did barely any writing last month. January, I guess, was a vacation month for me. This month, the writing will need to pick up. On the reading side, I’ve been enjoying Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays A Field Guide to Getting Lost, lent to me by a friend. Her precise yet looping sentences are quite the marvel.

I forgot to mention why I came to Chiang Mai. It was to do an art course. Before 2020 started I sketched out a very rough plan for what I wanted to do for this year. It had three columns: “Where do I want to go in 2020?” ; “What do I want to learn?” ; “What do I want to achieve?”

Under these headings, I wrote down my desires, and under ‘what do I want to learn’ one of the things was Art. It’s been great to head out in the morning, walking to the little art studio I found, to do, basically, a self-directed art course. The hourly price is quite cheap and they provide all the art materials.

One time, I was painting and three hours went by and I hardly noticed and was surprised when the teacher said such time had elapsed. It meant I had focused to a degree that time had been lost in my conscious mind. We all need more times like that, undistracted by phone and niggling worries, to simply concentrate on what’s at hand. I wanted to do art because I wanted to develop my visual ability and imagination, because I believe developing one side of your creative brain can help other parts of your creativity. I don’t know the science for it, but not all things need to be done just in order to be more productive. Doing something you enjoy is sometimes sufficient.

2 Responses

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  1. I recommend a Vietnamese city, Lu-Hai.

    Saigon is very fast paced and less gritty than Manila, and also offers easy access to some, if not jungle refuges, certainly rural retreats in the Mekong Delta. There, Can Tho us very up and coming. Try them out. You can get a 3 month visa via the UK. I am here till next month.


    Keith Crane

    February 5, 2020 at 5:10 pm

    • Thanks Keith, I will certainly be making my way to Vietnam again. I am just taking the leisurely route (not that I have a choice these days!) and look forward to visiting Saigon and southern Vietnam.

      Lu-Hai Liang

      April 8, 2020 at 5:11 am

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