It’s only fitting that I start this blog with the most common question people ask me when my travels to Thailand come up in conversation: “Why Thailand??” I asked the same question the first time my friend Rande wanted me to go there to see him while he was vacationing there. I had no desire to go to Thailand, and other than occasionally eating some Phad Thai in Seattle, I really knew nothing about the country. After several phone conversations, he convinced me to step out of my comfort zone, put aside any preconceived notions I had about the country, and get on a plane and go there. And within a few hours of being in Bangkok, I was hooked! And it only got better as we made our way down to the islands and beaches.
It’s actually hard for me to clearly articulate what specifically it is that’s so magical about Thailand (and to a certain degree Southeast Asia in general). But at the top of the list is the people. The Thais are the most warm, friendly, smiling and fun people I have ever met. Thailand’s tourism slogan is “The Land of Smiles”, and it’s a well-earned slogan; everyone is smiling all the time there! If you go even a little out of your way to engage in conversation with anyone — the waittress, the bell man, the bartender, the taxi driver — they are very open and love to talk about their families, culture, and country. They are extremely proud of the beauty of their country (and rightfully so), and are always eager to ask where you’ve travelled in the country and give you advice on new areas to explore. A small bit of conversation with them, and you will likely have a friend for life (and quite possibly, an invitation to go to their family’s home for dinner that night).
Next to the people, Thailand offers some of the most stunningly gorgeous scenery I’ve ever witnessed. From lush jungles and forests of rubber trees, coconut trees, palm trees, and banana plants to long stretches of soft sandy beaches, to colorful vertical limestone cliffs, to the iconic varying shades of blue and green waters… it is a photographer’s paradise, although this novice photographer can rarely capture anything that does justice to the natural beauty.
Along with the natural beauty are the man-made elements. Thailand has thousands and thousands of ornate buildings, shrines and Buddhist temples, many of which are centuries old. Whether they’re tucked away deep in a hillside, down a side road in a small village, or in the middle of bustling Bangkok, they are always beautiful to look at. Passing anywhere nearby one, you’re likely to smell the incense that people burn as they pray and make offerings to the monks. Stepping inside a temple seems to immediately make you calmer and introspective, regardless of your religious beliefs.
Thailand is considered a developing country. The infrastructure and standard of living that we’re used to in America and Europe simply are not there in Thailand, with the partial exception of Bangkok. You can’t drink the tap water anywhere, there are open sewers running down the streets, and outside of the tourist areas families often live in one-room shacks with no electricity or running water. It has been a fascinating experience for me to see a culture and lifestyle so different from what I’m used to. I grew up in a relatively poor family, but it pales in comparison to what I’ve seen in Thailand. But despite the basic conditions, they are thankful for what they have and work hard to carve out a living for themselves and their families. I have certainly become far more thankful for the little things in life, and realize how many things I take for granted just because of the luck of living in a developed country like America.
Now, Thailand is certainly not all poverty and shanty-towns. I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover the more popular tourist areas. This is where you see modern western culture juxtaposed with traditional Thai culture, and more and more the western influences are taking over. Bangkok has become a mecca of indulgence for the wealthy, with huge new malls opening every year to house the high-end stores like Cartier, Gucci, Chanel, Armani and a bunch of others that I’m not familiar with because they’re way out of my price range. In the most popular beach/island areas like Phuket and Koh Samui, you’ll find multi-story nightclubs with world-renowned DJs spinning, complete with sound systems, lights, lasers, foam, bubbles, smoke and a hip/cool atmosphere that would rival any of the hottest clubs in New York or LA. Yet, you still can’t drink the tap water in those clubs, and their toilets likely flush directly out into the open sewer in the street. Ok, so maybe not quite as polished as New York or LA, but they’re getting there…
So, Why Thailand? It’s because of all of the above, and more. It’s a mind-blowing cultural difference from what I’m used to; it’s amazing sun-soaked beaches along warm waters; it’s phenomenal historic and religious sites; it’s ridiculously good food and cheap prices; it’s peaceful rest and reflection when you want it, and thumping rowdy drunken crowds when you want that too; it’s $5 massages every day; it’s a culture of people who make me smile, laugh, and forget about everything else going on in my life and just enjoy every minute that I’m there. And I can’t wait to get back there again!!