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Thailand, Four Years Later

2013 March 15
Grand Palace, Bangkok

Third time’s the charm with the Grand Palace, Bangkok.

It’s been over two months (yes, I am finally out of my post-vacation funk) since I returned from my latest trip to Thailand so I’ve had some time to reflect and think about the trip. Even though it was not the longest (around 2.5 weeks), we managed to see a good number of places: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui.

Chiang Mai and Koh Samui were both new to me. Nestled up against the northern mountains, Chiang Mai provided some much needed reprieve from the oppressing heat in Bangkok. The city is much smaller and although I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as saying it’s quaint, it does have a certain charm about it.

We stayed within the old city walls where the streets were less busy and pretty much everywhere was walkable. With four days, we managed to do a good amount. A cooking class, elephant hike, the night market, and tiger petting were all checked off the list. The tigers, I thought, were especially interesting.

Essentially, it’s Siegfried & Roy for the common folk. The trainers take you into a cage and you get to pet a live, several hundred pound adult tiger. These cats are massive. They could easily kill you or I. But since they are trained since birth and are lazy during the day (people think they’re drugged, the center says they’re not, maybe it’s somewhere in between?), they basically sit around and let you pet them all you want. Nonetheless, it’s still an eye-opening experience, especially when you think about the size of your common household cat.

Tiger Kingdom, Chiang Mai.

Big kitty…

- – -

Koh Samui, or should I say CHEWANGGGGGG, was actually more tolerable than everyone suggested, including myself. Sure it was built up, sure there were a million tourists (half of them Russian), sure it didn’t really feel like Thailand, but that’s not to say everything about it was bad.

In fact, I had one of my best days of the trip there. The key is to get off the main tourist drag and explore the rest of the island. We grabbed some lunch, rode a motorbike to several of the less populated beach areas, and ended up at Waterfall #2 (yes, that is literally the name of it) where we hiked, saw a waterfall (of course), and hung out with elephants for hours. It was just one of those really chill days, especially since I love motobiking around.

The seafood was good, the beaches were nice, albeit crowded, and while Koh Samui’s nightlife wasn’t as crazy as Koh Phangan, it was more than enough to get the party started. So overall, a much more pleasant experience than I was expecting.

- – -

Going back to a country I had backpacked once before was a first time experience for me. While I realized from the beginning that these two trips would be very different, I couldn’t help but compare the Thailand in 2009 to the Thailand of 2013. In some ways the country (and the way I traveled) changed completely, in other ways, surprisingly not so much.

What changed.

  • Americans. Americans everywhere. At every guesthouse, city, island and sight we went to we saw Americans. Yes, I get it’s hypocritical, even selfish to say but my god, were there a lot of Americans! In 2009, I spent 62 days between January and March backpacking through most of Southeast Asia. During that trip, I saw a total of 6-7 others. This time, I must have met 6-7 on our first day alone. While the holidays probably had something to do with it, I also think Thailand and Southeast Asia are just a lot more discovered now than ever before. Even among my friends, it seems like everyone and their mother has recently gone or are planning on going. The days of Thailand being somewhat “exotic” are gone and it certainly doesn’t look like they’ll be coming back.
  • Smart phones and wifi. I sound a little “get off my lawn” ish but I can honestly say that back in 2009, you actually had to make an effort to check email or Facebook. Kids these days don’t know how easy they have it. Everyone has an iPhone or Android and hot spots are ubiquitous. It’s sort of a double edged sword: while it’s great to be connected, are you really stepping away from it all? One of the great things about backpacking is really just unplugging and experiencing life in the “slow” lane. You don’t need to Tweet, Instagram, or Facebook everything you do and your parents won’t think you’re dead if they haven’t heard from you in six hours. To me, sharing every single minuscule moment breaks up the trip into little pieces rather than experiencing the flow and rhythm of the entire experience. Seeing people in guesthouses nose deep in their laptops, iPads, and phones checking Facebook instead of actually talking to the other people there annoys the hell out of me. Since when did online interactions take precedent over real life ones?!
  • Khao San Road. While it was crazy back in 2009, it’s even crazier now. It used to be wide enough that a couple cars could fit side by side. Now it’s tough to fit even 4-5 people across because the vendors extended their racks even further towards the center of the road. A couple more McDonald’s and Burger Kings have popped up nearby and the bars now blast their music louder than ever. It’s as if someone turned the volume knob of the whole place to 150% and is just waiting for the speakers to blow out. While even more crazy and crowded, I have to admit… I still love it.
  • Koh Phangan. Of course there were the full moon, half moon, black moon, Shiva moon, whatever moon parties. Koh Phangan has always been all about that. Haad Rin Beach hadn’t changed much either because it was already so developed. But even a couple blocks in, you could see the transformation. A lot of construction was happening around “Chicken Corner” and the surrounding area. Uniform, faceless, concrete buildings sprung up like weeds. Workers were busy welding and pouring cement in another soon to be store or restaurant. I suppose it’s sort of inevitable for such a popular island but it was a bit sad to see all the man made buildings taking over the island’s natural beauty.

    Khao San Road, Bangkok

    My old stomping grounds. Khao San Road, Bangkok.

  • “Flashpacking”. This term has sprung up in the past few years and refers to people who have a shorter amount of time but have more money to spend. Since graduating college, I’ve fortunately been able to work at a couple of well-paying jobs which means I’m now able to afford a higher standard of travel. This means cabbing instead of public transportation, staying in the AC rooms vs. the windowless fan ones, splurging on a nice dinner every couple of days, or catching a flight in lieu of a train or bus ride. Although a part of me did sorta miss the rough and tumble, bargain basement style of travel, having some extra money to throw around did make a lot of things much more pleasant. Traveling with someone else on a compressed time schedule certainly made the decisions easier as well.

What didn’t.

  • The Thais. They don’t call Thailand the “Land of Smiles” for nothing. My first time there, I was amazed at how friendly and warm Thai people are. Fortunately, some things never change. Perhaps it’s the sun, or something in the water, but literally everywhere you go, from the street vendors to the shop keepers, Thai people always seem happy and content. It’s an energy that you feed off of and you invariably end up happier yourself. It’s one of the things I truly love about the country and why I’ll be back in the future.
  • The prices. In a pleasant surprise, prices stayed relatively the same even though inflation averaged 3-4% from 2009-2013. Although the exchange rate drifted down from 35:1 to 30:1, prices of food, guesthouses, and transportation more or less remained flat. Delicious street food still cost 25-30 baht a plate, beers from 7-11 were still 30 or so, the cheapest rooms in the guest houses could still be had for $5, and cab rides to and from the airport remained around $10-11. While prices in Thailand remained fairly constant, I did hear that they increased dramatically in Cambodia and Laos. This probable has to do with the fact that Thailand is much more economically developed than either of those two countries.
  • Koh Tao. Incredibly chill, beautiful, with world class dive sites all around, Koh Tao was one of my favorite places in all of Southeast Asia. As our boat pulled into the pier, I was hoping, crossing my fingers, praying to all the deities, that it hadn’t changed for the worse. By the time I made it to Sairee Beach, my prayers were answered. Other than 1-2 new bars, the beachfront hadn’t changed much at all. Good ole’ Chopper’s, Lotus Bar, and Ban’s were still kicking as were Blue Wind cafe and my old diving school at Seashell Resort. I realized that because Koh Tao was so small and compact, it actually saved the island from drastic changes simply because there was no more room to build. If there’s one thing I hope to see many years down the road, it’s that Koh Tao retain the same small town, island, chilled out atmosphere it’s had for so many years.

    Koh Tao, Thailand.

    Paradise? Koh Tao, Thailand.

- – -

Without a doubt, this trip was drastically different from the one I took in 2009. Back then, I was 21, backpacking solo, and single. I had a ton more time but a lot less money. Pretty much everything was a new experience and I could do anything I wanted without consulting someone else.

This time, I was returning to a lot of places that I had seen before. While some of the wonder was gone, I found that I really liked the familiarity. It was like reuniting with an old friend that you had great times with. I distinctly remember my pace quickening with excitement as I got closer to my old stomping grounds of Soi Rambuttri on the first day. I knew where to find the all important 7-11′s. I knew the good street food areas and how to haggle down the vendors. Pulling into Koh Tao and seeing Sairee beach again, finding the same girl that I bought buckets from on Koh Phangan; all of it was an even better experience because it linked the present to the past. And while the “past” was only four years ago, for a developing country like Thailand, that is a lot of time.

In the places I did see change, I saw a lot of it. Coming from the viewpoint of a tourist, it was disheartening to see the rampant modernization and commercialization. It pushed Thailand even further away from the more “traditional” and less developed past. But when you really think about it, it’s kind of a selfish view.  Just because we want to see the quaint and traditional way of life doesn’t necessarily mean the people living there do. They very much want the same quality of life they see on TV and in the movies. This doesn’t mean McDonald’s in every corner but it also doesn’t mean people are still fetching water from the village well.

Seeing the changes that occurred in only four years further reinforced my belief that the time to visit developing countries is now. Who knows what Thailand will look like in ten years. The places I’ve visited could easily evolve into something unrecognizable.

Another takeaway was that I truly realized that each trip is special and unique. Every time you travel will be under a different set of circumstances. Not only are you likely to see a different place, but it will likely be in a different phase of your life. Some of the things that appealed to you before may not have the same allure the next time around. It’s obvious when you think about it but it wasn’t so crystal clear until I had actually experienced it. So while traveling soon is good, it’s also important to travel often.

- – -

All in all, this trip was different. But different is good. Change is, ironically, one of the few constants in life and you have no choice but to accept it. The Thailand of 2013 won’t be there when I return in the future. But that’s okay. Because when I do go back, I’ll be able to discover new things and embrace it for what it is.

And perhaps some things, like Koh Tao and the Thai attitude, won’t change. But you know what?

That’s perfectly fine with me.

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