The land where even smiles are for sale.
Thailand’s hardly a secret destination. Every year, millions upon millions of pale-skinned tourists flock to the most beautiful parts of the country to take advantage of a cheap, safe tropical paradise. Watching the carnage of places like Phuket and Khao San Road will inevitably bring a feeling of deep regret to the weary backpacker. In Thailand, it can seem like every experience is packaged to sell and it’s easy to forget what travel is all about.
Thailand stands alone as the only country in the region to have avoided European colonial dominance and this legacy of independence has left the country with a distinctive national pride. Most travelers pass through Thailand without ever realising they were there, things are made so absurdly easy for them, but there’s plenty to experience if you take a step out of your cultural safety zone.
Thailand is certainly not a third world country. The trains and buses run on time for the most part, the streets are generally clean and safe, the food is excellent and cheap, the people are openly friendly and relatively liberal and modern, and the country is blessed with incredible natural beauty from its thousands of kilometers of coastline to the mountains of the north.
Travelers in Thailand, however, are, in general, an uninspiring bunch. With its worldwide appeal as an ‘exotic’ destination, millions of potbellied, sunburned, middle-aged package tourists and teenage backpackers clinging desperately to their Lonely Planet guidebooks dominate the country, particularly in the most touristy areas. Some of the younger tourists often get pissed every day and then end up hitting someone to cover up their insecurity at not really understanding where they are. The traveler in Thailand has arguably more to fear from drunken tourists on their Gap Year than just about anything else in the country.
Backpackers are carted around like chickens to market by the Thais.
Fortunately, the Thais are a much more likable bunch. Buddhism is strong here, and a tangible tranquility hangs over the population. Violent crime is rare, though there have been recent incidents involving foreigners in certain drug-fueled rave centers like Koh Samui. In general, Thais are happy to see visitors and treat foreigners with respect and kindness, often also with a certain level of indifference (to be expected in a society that has so much contact with foreigners who will never learn to speak even ten words of their language).
Compared to countries like Laos, and particularly Cambodia, Thailand is not a place where a traveler can do whatever he wants and get away with it. In Bangkok, for example, most bars stop serving alcohol after midnight. Marijuana is exceptionally rare and highly illegal. What the traveler does find is usually of low quality and extremely expensive. Traffic is relatively orderly and a traveler who wants to drive a motorbike around might even be asked if he has an international driver’s license.
All of this being said, Thailand is certainly not the West. The cities tend to be chaotic, overcrowded, and throbbing. There are ten of thousands of open air markets across the country selling everything from clothes to green tea and tourist knickknacks. Night markets seem to spring up out of thin air and offer excellent food at dirt cheap prices. Pagodas sit atop mountains in far away corners of the country, and offer a tranquil place for meditation and relaxation, though finding areas without dozens of tourists snapping pictures is difficult.
Thailand is at the heart of Southeast Asia both geographically and culturally, running from the predominantly Islamic areas of the South, through the heart of Theravada Buddhism, which dominates the country, to the animist tribes of the North. The incredible diversity of the people and natural environment are the kind of detail that fills up the pages of the guidebooks to Thailand and ensure that any number of trek to visit hill tribe are sold to travelers looking for a bit of culture.
Thailand is still a country where a traveler can find an undeveloped beach, particularly in the far southern areas where few tourists venture for fear of the ongoing violent civil conflict between the Muslim minority and the ethnic Thais. The far north of the country has nearly endless tracts of mountains running all the way to Myanmar and northern Laos. Unfortunately, the forests which cover these mountains are being clear-cut and used for slash and burn agriculture. The hill tribes of the north, which lived in relative isolation even 50 years ago, now see foreign tourists on an almost daily basis. Some tribes, such as the so-called “Longnecks,” (so-named because of their unusually long necks, the result of years of putting rings around their necks to force them to become longer) have reverted to traditions that had previously been eradicated for humanitarian reasons, all in search of tourist dollars.
Though much of Thailand has been utterly overrun with tourism, it’s still an essential part of the world traveler’s resume. It’s a springboard for the rest of your travels in South East Asia and a place where you can get your head together for a while before moving on.