It had been 20+ years since I travelled through Thailand with a backpack and (very) limited budget.
On my first trip to South East Asia I was immediately struck by the warmth and friendliness of the Thai people, but managed to spend over two weeks in their country while only really seeing one famous sight – the ancient capital of Ayutthaya.
This trip stood in contrast, including a generous budget and the most touristed destinations. We stayed in good hotels, took flights, had a car and dined wherever we desired.
To those who have not visited Thailand, it my come as a surprise that according to some measures, it may be the most touristed country on earth. Thailand is safe, friendly, generally clean and easy to navigate, despite a rather substantial written language barrier.
It is also extremely affordable for almost any budget. Looking back 20 years, Thailand in 2020 feels more affluent and Bangkok’s transport infrastructure has certainly improved. This was desperately needed.
Traffic is hectic to crazy, yet despite lights and road markings being mere suggestions, the atmosphere is not shattered by the constant honking so common in other countries.
Crossing roads remains a challenge and the swarms of scooters and motorbikes – often with entire, helmet-less families riding together – exacerbate any attempt at fluid transport.
Add many foreigners to this symphony of movement, and it is a wonder we only witnessed a few accidents.
Thailand is a Buddhist country and a Monarchy. There is a sizeable Muslim population – most notably in the South, and everyone seems to get along very well. Admirably, in fact.
Upon arrival to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s North, there is a large billboard clarifying that images of Buddha are to be respected and not used for tattoos, as ornaments or for jokes. This seems fair enough.
I am not a religious person, but I certainly feel more drawn to aspects of Buddhism than other religions. The iconography is warm and beautiful and the gentle monastic lifestyle could be very appealing. I am sure there are many faults, but wow, there is a lot to learn.
Temples are generally inviting places of peace and inner reflection. Karma undoubtably contributes to a culture of kindness – I find this much more motivating than the punishment-oriented structure of the monotheistic faiths. Of course reincarnation is surely an effective tool with which to promise ‘a better go the next time around.’
Architecture & Safety
Excepting the magnificent temples, shrines and even mosques, Thai architecture is distinctly more functional than attractive.
Town streets feel very much like the haphazard cement structures common the world over. Many streets could be anywhere hot and certainly reminded us of Latin America with one important distinction; Thais clearly do not require walls or metal bars around their houses or over their windows.
Thailand’s power grid is painfully obvious. Power wires infest every street and building. Fortunately the country does not suffer huge Earthquakes (but has indeed suffered Tsunamis), otherwise the grid could not be sustainable.
The safety element of Thailand is really wonderful. I did use the lockbox in my room, but felt entirely comfortable carrying money and documents. In fact ‘beware of theft’ warnings appeared to be in areas frequented by backpackers and tourists. For fear of generalizing ( 😉 ), I expect one should worry more about the thousands upon thousands of budget travellers than the Thai people themselves.
Bangkok is a major city and economic hub. Its broader population is well above 15 million and it was among the first major cities to suffer true gridlock. Since my last visit, a new, elevated train system and a series of expressways has improved the situation, but the ambient noise and pollution is alarming.
The city is relatively young, for an ancient country and culture. Consequently the architecture offers a haphazard mix of regal, ultra-modern, tropical and Third World.
The Chao Phraya River, which opens to the Gulf of Thailand helps to define the city. We wasted a little money buying a day pass on a hop-on hop-off boat, and the river’s murky waters are festooned with plastic.
Yet for a huge, ridiculously hot city, the residents are as friendly and warm as almost all the Thai people.
*Do note that despite the oppressive heat, one is required to cover shoulders and knees when visiting religious and royal sites. It is easy to rent clothes as needed!
What to do
Well, start and finish with a massage. 200-300 Bhat ($8-11 USD) is a full hour Thai massage. What a wonderful experience. Over three weeks I enjoyed a dozen massages that all involve stretching, bending and laughter!
This is a tactile, warm and happy culture. The massage experience is a huge employer – particularly of women – it is empowering and healthy.
If, however, you are interested in the erotic type of massage, please be aware there is a dark underbelly within the society and those women are trafficked. In fact, if you travel to buy sex then I hope you are exposed for being a predator.
This is the principle reason I have avoided returning to Thailand. Or at least Thailand’s main tourist spots. These places were easy enough to avoid.
Food is a highlight, but a little repetitive. I gave up on beef almost immediately and enjoyed veggies and spice. A cooking class in Chiang Mai was well worth the experience. We even earned certificates … but I’m not sure I am any closer to mastering my Thai culinary skills.
The Hill Country in the north did not disappoint and Chiang Mai was as friendly as its reputation, but the city it not all that attractive. We did ‘summit’ the highest peak in the country (and simply hired a taxi for two days). We also found some good hiking.
Meeting, feeding and washing elephants was an absolute highlight. I will plead ignorance in understanding how terrible it is to ride these majestic animals. Fortunately we visited a reserve and simply interacted with them. Apparently the training processes can be particularly brutal, so best just to connect and avoid shows.
The south is all about beach life and culture. The experience becomes more complicated.
Phuket boasts among the most beautiful beaches on earth, but as a destination I will honestly offer 6/10. We were shocked by the unfriendly airport / transport staff, then the rude taxi driver and finally the debate at the hotel about an extra cost for two beds.
The experience did improve, however mass tourism has not marked, but rather defined Phuket. 50+ percent of tourists are Russian. One cannot help but admire their fitness (when strutting along the beach), but such a dower culture has rubbed off on the friendly Thais. It is odd to mix the most smiley people with the least.
And then famous Patong with all its dubious massage parlors is littered with Aussie bars, touts and frenetic traffic. Fun for a couple of days, but that’s it.
Venturing a little further, the region offers absolutely magnificent beaches and spectacular limestone islands that draw climbers from all over the world. We went ‘deep water soloing’ (climbing without ropes and jumping into the warm Andaman waters). This was a life highlight for me!
At least on this trip, everyday was hot to sweltering. We had no rain whatsoever. I had a custom suit and several shirts made – although I am yet to wear them as everyday was shorts and sweaty tees. Thailand’s sizeable Indian community seems to manage this industry. Be prepared to negotiate.
Thai is a krap language. There are upwards 10 ways to refer to oneself in Thai and men end many phrases with ‘krap’ (women say ‘kan’). The abugida script is beautiful, but entirely unintelligible unless studied. English is the language used in tourism – but Thais say their language is, in fact, quite easy to learn – most people seem to think their language is the ‘hardest’ – another reason Thais are just so inviting and lovely.
Many people return to Thailand year after year and it is sad to see how little of the local language and customs they manage to learn. This is the unfortunate mix of mass tourism and cheap hippies.
I fully expect to have a third experience in Thailand at some point. Now that I know the country somewhat better I may offer a tour to the region. Despite the heat, the dry season seems so logical for a visit, particularly when escaping winter elsewhere.