I’m Going Going, Back Back, to Thailand Thailand
They call Thailand the “Land of Smiles” because of the country’s friendly people and fascinating culture. For me, thinking about the place usually brings a giant smile to my face.
Of all the countries I’ve been to, I’ve found Thailand to be one of the most accessible and easy places to travel. Combined with the laid back attitude of the Thais, the amazing food, the low cost, the beaches, and the parties, I believe the country is one of the best vacations spots on the planet.
And that is why I’m going back for a third time this December.
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The first time I visited was in 2004. I went with my family and friends on an Asian tour group. It was a bit of a whirlwind tour but it was, nonetheless, still pretty awesome. We spent most of our time in Bangkok and Pattaya and did a slew of touristy stuff like elephant riding, parasailing, watching a lady boy show, and braving the Pattaya Park Zipline. But perhaps what stands out in my mind the most is the food.
I had eaten Thai before but this was a taste of real Thai food. Every restaurant we dined at had an unbelievable selection of weird and exotic foods that I had never tried, let alone seen. This was a real eye opening experience for a 17 year old kid. I found myself asking, “What else is out there?”
At that time, I had only seen North America, a bit of Western Europe, and China. For the most part, those cultures and customs were familiar to me. I had never experienced something completely out of left field. But Thailand was different. Thailand was new.
And Thailand was exciting.
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Fast forward to 2009.
I had earned my backpacking chops during my semester abroad in England. In the three months there, I made my way through most of Western Europe and went as east as Prague. I experienced my share of living in hostels, sleeping in airports, and dealing with all the issues that pop up on the road.
So when I landed at Bangkok International with nothing except a return flight 62 days later, I wasn’t completely fazed. I still had the butterflies but this also wasn’t my first rodeo. Yet the fear of the unknown still lurked in the back of my mind. Fortunately, that fear dissipated quickly in the “Land of Smiles”. A few beers, a bucket, and a group of friendly travelers quickly replaced it with a sense of elation and freedom I hadn’t felt since Europe.
With a wide smile and a heavy buzz, thus began arguably the best two months of my life (to date). With Bangkok as my “home base”, I circled Southeast Asia counterclockwise and ended up spending half the trip in Thailand. I saw the major sights in Bangkok, ate all the street food, guzzled icy bottles of beer from 7-11’s, and cruised the multitude of malls.
After exploring most of Bangkok, I headed down to the islands. It was a bit surreal knowing an already amazing trip was only going to get better. For the last three weeks of my trip, I dived, partied, motobiked, and ate my way from Koh Tao, to Koh Phangan, to the Similans, and finished off in Koh Phi Phi. The crystal clear waters, the relaxed pace of life, and the fresh seafood were all new to me.
Thailand was different this time around. I was older and traveling on my own. The places I went were decided by my own research and my own decisions. Unlike my first trip, I had the freedom to decide how much time I wanted to spend in a place. If I liked it, I stayed longer, if I didn’t, I left. By the end of the trip, I felt as though I had re-discovered Thailand. And although I had visited quite a few places, I hadn’t seen it all.
I promised myself I would go back.
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It’s been nearly four years since I returned from Bangkok but fortunately, I’ll be back in less than a week. Once again, this experience will be different. Instead of traveling with a tour group, or soloing around, I’ll be going with my girlfriend. Thailand seems to mark unique periods of my life and every time I go back, I discover something new and different.
Our plan is to hang out in Bangkok for a bit before heading off to Chiang Mai and the islands. We’ll be spending Christmas and New Years (abroad) together so that’s a first as well. And although I’m a big fan of solo travel, I’m really excited to go with her because the shared experience is something you simply don’t get while traveling alone.
I’m also looking forward to seeing how places have changed. I already know that places like Vang Vieng and Lakeside in Phnom Penh are completely different from how they were in 2009. While it is a bit selfish to say, I hope the impending march of globalization hasn’t changed places like Koh Tao into something grotesque and unrecognizable.
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Every time you board a plane, you never know quite exactly what you’re getting yourself into but that’s part of the beauty of traveling. Even though this will be the third time around, I’m sure Thailand will bring plenty of surprises and unexpected moments. While I can’t predict what will happen on this trip, there is one thing I do know for certain.
I’ll be smiling the entire way there.