Ever since I caught the travel bug on my first trip to Central America, I have wanted to visit Thailand. Something about the place held my fascination, though I had but a few expectations before we arrived: that the land would be beautiful (it is), that the people would be peaceful (they are, though the protests right now may suggest otherwise), and that the food would be good (well, you know where we stand on that issue). It’s funny, though…traveling to a new country can be just like shopping from a catalog, you never know if something is going to fit unless you try it on. Despite the beautiful landscape and the gracious people, I have to admit that we left a bit disheartened by some (definitely not all) of our experiences in Thailand. I think it has to do with the fact that there are so many Western tourists in the country…but before you throw up your hands and say, “Oh, Hope and Jeremy didn’t like Thailand because it’s too touristy,” let me explain. It’s not the fact that there are so many Westerners here, I mean, if that’s the case, then shame on us for only adding to the problem, right? Rather, it is tourism’s effect upon the local people that didn’t sit right with us. Perhaps it’s because so many party people and sex tourists come to Thailand, or maybe Thais are just tired of working so hard to embrace the hordes of travelers coming to their country and not getting anything out of it. We found it difficult (in some places) to connect with locals beyond the standard service-industry interactions, leaving us discouraged and a little depressed. To be clear, I don’t blame Thai people at all…they are more than polite and accommodating towards travelers in their country. Rather, I think it is just a social condition that has manifested itself as a result of a few wayward Westerners treating parts of Thailand like their own personal playground.
That being said, I do want to point out that we had a wonderful time with Oak and his wife in Bangkok. I mean, this is a guy who told us (as we were leaving his house for the airport), “You know where your home in Bangkok is.” We know that it’s not every day you encounter that kind of open-heartedness and generosity. So even if Thailand could taste a bit sour at times, we were also left with a sweet taste in our mouths from the experience.
Days spent here: 19
Places we would like to go next time: Similan Islands
Prices: With the exception of Chiang Mai (which is super cheap), we found Thailand to be quite expensive, especially in terms of accommodation. One of the worst rooms we stayed in in SE Asia (in Krabi) was also one of the spendier ones (at US$18.50 per night), and the most expensive room we stayed in all of SE Asia was in Ko Lipe (at US$26 per night). Food in Thailand can be quite cheap, however, as long as you like pad thai and fruit shakes.
Weather: The weather was beautiful while we were in Thailand. It was hot and dry in the south (at the end of January), and hot and humid in the north (mid-March).
In order to deal with the heat, Thais (apparently) bathe several times a day. They also use baby powder to keep themselves dry, and the options are amazingly broad. There are baby powders with cooling agents, baby powders that help control acne, baby powders that shimmer, baby powders with deodorant…the list goes on. We tried the baby powder thing and we have to say, it is quite refreshing!
Transit: We traveled in Thailand on plane, mini-bus, boat, and train. Mini-buses in Thailand are not the holy terrors that they are in Vietnam…we enjoyed a very comfortable 5-hour ride from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai via mini-bus transport. Similarly, the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was very comfortable, but try to get a bottom bed, as they are much wider than the top berths.
Internet: Wi-fi connections in Thailand are plentiful, though we always had to pay for access (usually between 30 and 50 baht per hour: approx. US$0.85 to US$1.50).
Culture: Thailand is a very Buddhist country, which accounts for the peaceful nature of its people. There are many opportunities to do 10-day introductory meditation retreats at Buddhist monasteries here (which we really wanted to do but alas did not have time for). If you do decide to take part in one of these courses, be prepared to sleep on a concrete bed with a wooden pillow, wake up at 4AM, and deal with rats, snakes, and mosquitos (Buddhist monks do not believe in killing any living creatures, so rodents of all sizes can take safe shelter at their local monastery). Also, you are not allowed to eat after noon (this tenet in particular scared Jeremy).
The other person (besides the Buddha) that Thais worship is their King. Oh my god, do they love their King. You cannot walk a block without seeing his face. Every little hole-in-the-wall restaurant has a small shrine devoted to him with shells and flowers and stickers decoupaged around his portrait. His face is all over their coins and bills, and it Thailand it is against the law to step on money, since to do so is to disrespect the King. By the way, as far as we could gather, the King’s role is sort of like the Queen of England—purely ceremonial.
The final bit of Thai culture that I wanted to mention is the wai, the standard way of greeting people in Thailand. Basically, you hold your hands together in front of your face and say, “sawatdee” (”hello” in Thai). If someone wai’s you, it is polite to wai back, though the position of your hands does matter. It seems that wai’ing so that your fingertips are touching your forehead is a sign of utmost respect, but when in doubt, just make sure your fingertips are right underneath your nose. Hold your hands too low in relation to your face, and you risk offending someone.
In short: I don’t mean to be too negative about Thailand…in fact, if I think back to the places we visited, we liked all of them and had a really nice time in each location (especially Ko Lipe). It’s just that you can feel the effect of tourism in Thailand more than in other SE Asian countries. I guess it was the surprise of encountering this reality that threw us a bit off balance.
Check out our photos from Thailand: