Half domesticated and half feral, these mutts can be found sauntering narrow alleyways or napping on patches of shady concrete. Their joints are bald and shiny from habitually sitting on hard surfaces. Their coats are matt, sometimes mangy, and always covered by a layer of dust.
They are called “soi dogs” because they haunt the lanes that snake through Thai neighbourhoods. “Soi” in Thai means side-street.
Despite their sometimes derelict appearance, there is a sense of communal solicitude about these animals. People from the neighbourhood often feed and house soi dogs. Large packs live in temples where monks care for them. Never have I met a dog in Chiang Mai that looked emaciated.
Thai people’s tolerance and generosity shape these dogs’ docile temperament. Unlike the street dogs in other South East Asian countries, soi dogs in Thailand treat humans with placid curiosity. They are the epitome of sabai, masters of chill. They lounge in the middle of the road barely opening an eye as motorcycles weave around them and amble slowly off only if a truck honks furiously from two feet away.
Of course, not all soi dogs can resist chasing motorcycles. Biking at night with a pack of dogs barking and chasing after you can be a harrowing experience. The sheer number of motorcycles on the road, however, means that adolescent dogs soon grow out of the habit.
When we first moved to Chiang Mai, there was a black lab that always hung around the pizza place near our guest house. For a while, it was his duty to pursue every motorcycle passing the restaurant. A few months later, he specialized in barking at red bikes. He soon grew tired of even that. My husband and I watched him, one Friday night as we treated ourselves to pizza, eyeing red bikes as they approach. He made a half-assed motion to get up, gave a noncommittal gruff, and plopped back down as if exhausted. It wasn’t long until he gave up chasing bikes altogether.
After a few years in Chiang Mai, we moved into a condo twenty minutes from the city. About the same time, a ridiculously handsome stray moved into our neighbourhood. My husband and I dubbed him “Crazy Dog” because he could also be observed trotting in one direction with purpose, stop suddenly and reverse directions with equal solemnity. Most of the time, he treated us with studied indifference. Occasionally he barked at us wildly, lips furled.
We took to feeding Crazy Dog. With time his attitude towards us improved.
For a stray dog, Crazy Dog is remarkably picky. He doesn’t like rice or bread and he’ll begrudgingly eat meatballs. His favourite treat is “moo ping”: a 10 Baht pork stick from the market. He would take the meat and place it on the ground, use one paw to hold the stick and his mouth to slide all the pork off the skewer. He only ate once we stopped watching him, as if embarrassed. Once I bought him a bag of doggy treats from a fancy grocery store. He turned his nose up at it. It made my purse smell like dog food for a week.
Walking home from the market, along a badly lit street, the silhouette of Crazy Dog approaching was always a welcoming sight. His bottlebrush tail cast long shadows as it waved in the air. He sniffed us, allowed us to pet him for a while before heading off other more urgent business. He made us feel a sense of belonging. It made the flea bites worth it.