There are some places that stick to you. Places where even a vagabond like me can’t help but look around and think, “I could live here. Toss down a throw rug, stick the wireless router in a corner, kill a few scorpions and we could call this home.” Even issues that would be dealbreakers back home, somehow they become “local color.”
For me Thailand, though not without its flaws, will always be one of those places…
Waiting for a night train up to Chiang Mai Laura and I stopped in at the station cafeteria. Anywhere else this would end in a justifiably revolting meal, but we were in Thailand. Where travelers on Amtrak aspire to microwaved croutons, in Bangkok we had spicy soup, fried noodles and crispy pork on rice. Books have been written about the food of Thailand. Thai cooking shames your greasy chow mein and stands up to even Italian and American barbecue on the world stage.
Lots of countries can make great food though. Thailand stands out because the food is nearly always good.
The food at Suvarnabhumi Airport is good. The food at the local bar is good. Even microwaving frozen food at one of the country’s 8,469 7/11’s is good (somehow). This country seems functionally incapable of serving a bad meal, transforming even rancid fish drippings into something wonderful.
When I close my eyes and picture Thailand, I’m sitting at a too-low plastic table in the middle of a busy street eating roast pork by the light of a kerosene lamp. The traffic is inches away, a wall of noise that includes engines, cook pots and the chatting bustle of humanity settling in for dinner. People are rushing past on every side, but the street carts make little pools of calm for people to sit and eat and socialize. Later on I might go grab a beer from one of the outdoor bars, or even pick up a few things at the market. Probably I’ll just wander around people watching. Definitely I’ll end up dodging someone on a motorbike.
The beating heart of Thailand is on its streets and sidewalks. It’s where everyone congregates at the end of the day. The best way to experience a Thai city is to just pull up a stool.
Every Sunday downtown Chiang Mai sets up an enormous open air market. Half practical and half tourist, it’s the market your hardware store would set up if they came with a side order of oil paintings and handmade jewelry. It’s worth a trip to the city on its own (as, to be fair, would any Ace Hardware with an art section).
Thailand would be a duller, and far more quiet, place without its markets. From the bustling vendors where most commerce happens to the night markets that seem to sprout out of nowhere as soon as the sun sets, almost every Thai community focuses on its outdoor markets. It’s surprising in some ways for a country with only three seasons, two of which are “monsoon” and “hot,” but this much is true about a visit to Thailand:
On your first trip, you might eat in restaurants and shop in a mall. By the second you’ll be pulling up an outdoor stool next to the old hands.
Thailand’s islands are a shell game. Beautiful, surreal and peaceful at their best, the really popular ones are often vile, victims of their own success (see: Kho Phi Phi below). Railei Beach is, for the time being, a happy mix of the discovered and the not-yet spoiled. Enough tourist dollars have arrived to build up the scuba schools and rock climbing institutes that allow people without their own equipment to indulge in the Andamans’ extraordinary landscapes, and the waterfront has a few nice bars for the evening. Yet the island hasn’t (yet) become a littered, booze addled shell of itself crawling with drugs, flophouses and Muay Thai rings.
My advice? Grab a longboat and head on over now because nice as it is today, who knows how long Railei Beach will last?
The Road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai
This is a journey well worth taking. Chiang Rai itself has relatively little to recommend it. It’s a Thai Cleveland, perfectly functional in its unglamorous sort of way but not particularly worth a visit. It just sits up there in the northern mountains quietly getting the job done. Getting to Chiang Rai is another story.
This trip has mountains, sweeping jungles, hot springs and the super trippy White Temple. There’s not much worth staying for once you get to the city, but if you ever want to prove to someone the value of a journey over the destination take them to Chiang Rai.
Thai minivans are the devil. If Satan Beelzebub came to Earth and assumed his true form, I’m quite certain it would be as an overcrowded minivan rocketing along a narrow road outside of Surat Thani with passengers barely clinging to their own bags. (Yet seemingly unfazed by the whole experience.)
The only upside to a trip in one of these rattling vomitoriums is that at the speeds they go, there’s a reasonable shot that your own mortality will take care of the motion sickness. Throw in their bizarre hours, frequent stops and the time one driver almost abandoned me at a service station bathroom break and it’s clear: these incredibly common, virtually unavoidable transports are a work of pure evil.
I dislike describing “the people” in a country. It’s condescending to talk about a nation of individuals like they’re some breed of terrier. This is true despite what appears to be a professional obligation on the part of travel writers to ladle superlatives upon “the people” virtually everywhere we go. Human nature being what it is, I’ve long assumed that there’s some great, rarely visited land where all the assholes hide out every time someone from Lonely Planet comes to town.
Some impressions stick anyway. In Bangkok it was the feeling that just about everyone saw me as a walking cash machine. Eventually I began to spend every conversation just waiting for the sales pitch. The feeling of perpetually being scammed and shaken down gets old after a while, and I was astonished at what a cheap city Bangkok became once local friends started hailing my cabs.
Now, this is there is an explanation for this. Thailand is a conservative culture. The people who approach you on the street self select to be jerks because those with manners don’t. Making a few friends, and leaving Bangkok, will help a lot, but that feeling of being seen only for your American dollars will probably become a memorable part of any trip to Thailand.
There’s an air of political coercion to day-to-day life in Thailand that’s distinctly troubling, from standing for the national anthem before watching Batman to the heavily enforced lese majesty laws. The country demands respect for and allows no criticism of the royal family, which makes politics challenging because as soon as a royal weighs in the conversation is over. Much of Thai political debate boils down to deciding whose side the King is on.
Thais don’t shove their politics in the tourists’ faces. In fact, I didn’t notice this until everyone rose for the national anthem one morning at the train station. Once I started paying attention it became hard not to see everywhere.
I love to give advice about how to mix career and travel. You might even call it my job. Unfortunately that’s pretty hard to do here because Thailand has some of the strictest labor laws I’ve ever seen. In a nutshell: foreigners need permission to do any job for any reason that a Thai person could do, even if they volunteer and whether or not a local worker is available. As you might imagine, such permission is not easy to come by.
They take this law very seriously. Most of the usual options for travelers to earn some quick cash, such as bartending or hostel work, are off the table in Thailand (legally at least). One guesthouse in Krabi even had to stop letting guests play music in the common room because south Thailand has musicians. Tourism, teaching and pretty much any other job that needs a good command of English is still open to out-of-towners. Otherwise, trying to legally work or volunteer in Thailand is an uphill battle.
Koh Phi Phi
In fairness, Laura and I did have some fun on Koh Phi Phi. We went to a great little cooking school, had coffees by the water and even spent a wonderful evening at a deserted beach bar just watching the waves. That doesn’t save the overall experience.
Ever since The Beach Koh Phi Phi has been absolutely destroyed by waves of backpackers and locals looking to soak up every baht they can. What once was an island paradise has become a filthy boomtown defined by litter, cheap bars and Muay Thai rings. Absolutely no effort has been made to save this island from development destruction, and today a weekend on Koh Phi Phi is generally defined by aggressive bar touts and knockoff Mexican food. Is it possible to still find a nice spot on this island? Sure, but talk about damning with faint praise.