Thoughts on Thailand
Edit: This was written in 2015 after my first visit to Thailand. See my comments at the end for an update.
There is no country in the whole world that travelers talk about more than Thailand. As a traveler who tends to walk the road less traveled I found it difficult to muster much interest in such a destination. Yet I am also insatiably curious. So I set aside my expectations, determined to find out for myself what I think of the country.
Same same but different
My first impression arriving in Bangkok was of such familiarity I’d swear I had been there before. The feel of the country is very much like that of Mexico, Bolivia or Peru. There are differences of course, but from a broad view there are so many similarities the whole country was far more familiar than it was strange. I’ve heard this same impression from a surprising number of travelers who have spent time in Latin America. I love a phrase Thai people use regularly which expresses this sentiment perfectly:
Same same but different!
The Thai massage
Thailand is famed far and wide for the Thai massage so of course I had to give it a try in Chiang Mai where there are more massage parlors than bars. The agony of that first massage was indescribable! For the entire hour I couldn’t even muster the energy to wonder why anyone would put up with this I was in such pain. I have no doubt my torture-trained masseuse was chuckling with glee while her friends watched with sadistic pleasure!
Apparently I am highly masochistic because I returned every day for the next week for more time with my torturers. About day number four an amazing thing happened: It started to feel good! By the end of the week I even began to look forward to those massages and by the end of the month I could hardly stay away. Muscles that had become permanently knotted slowly relaxed into blissful suppleness.
My biggest surprise came in the discovery that the cheapest massages are actually the best! Ignore the massage parlors and expensive spas. Go instead to the Buddhist temples and look for the humble massage businesses sheltered therein. The personal are generally better trained, friendlier and more considerate of their clients. At 120 Baht (about USD $4.00) per hour, these massages became a decadent daily pleasure
The taste buds are very happy!
Thailand has reliably amazing food! Traditional dishes that are tasty and spicy, “rotee” for low-sugar desert (similar to a crepe, but with a pastry-like dough), fresh fruit smoothies, and fantastic world cuisine. In Chiang Mai I even found giant baked potatoes smothered in chili, a favorite dish of mine I had not seen since I left the USA!
I can’t help but compare the food to Mexico, another favorite country of mine for the cuisine. The food is delicious in both countries. The choice of traditional dishes is a bit more varied in Thailand and definitely healthier. Mexico has a far greater variety of flavors and levels of spiciness available.
Everything is a tourist attraction!
There are a lot of interesting things in Thailand, but it seems all one massive tourist attraction. Take the famed weekend market in Chiang Mai as an example. The locals tout its impressiveness and the tourists rave about it what they find. Yet it can’t even begin to compare to some of the markets in South America. This market in Chiang Mai is in truth nothing more than a tourist attraction filled with souvenirs. Fascinating if you haven’t seen some of the large local markets in more remote locations of the world yet rather disappointing to me after traveling through Latin America.
The Buddhist Temples
The Buddhist temples are havens of peace and tranquility in this country of noise and chaos. To me they feel serene and accepting in a way that I found rare in Christian churches. The architecture and beauty of them quickly becomes repetitive yet I spent time in them every day as a peaceful and energetic place to meditate. It is interesting watching the tourists explore the temples. They receive a lot more respect than churches throughout Europe and Latin America.
Friendly yet Greedy
The locals like you and your money!
Thailand receives more than 25 million tourists each year! Many countries with this many tourists passing through get jaded and bitter about tourists. This is quite often well disguised, but comes out when attempting to interact with the locals beyond monetary transactions.
I have been delighted to find out this has not happened to the Thai people! They are a happy and friendly people who, by and large, do not seem to mind the hordes of tourists running around.
However, they have no hesitation about getting as much money from tourists as possible. The unwary will frequently find prices significantly inflated compared to what a more savvy traveler would pay.
A very expensive cheap country!
The cheap cost of living in Thailand has long attracted budget travelers, expats and digital nomads. There is no question this is still true… until you want to do anything except eat and sleep. A single full-day activity may cost as much as two weeks of food and lodging!
I understand why people love this country….
My own impression of Thailand is that of a familiar and comfortable yet unspectacular country. I know that is mostly because of the many places I have seen over the past few years. If I had come here earlier in my travels I may have fallen in love with the country as it has many of the elements of some of my favorite places in the world, just with more tourists running around. As a place to linger in inexpensive comfort it suited me perfectly. My days were filled with photography, meditation, massage and setting up this web site. My nights were spent dancing, relaxing in unique bars, dancing, meeting other travelers and getting to know the locals. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I will miss those daily massages at the not-so-tender hands of the girls at the temple and my morning bowls of fruit at the open air market.
Yet at the same time I couldn’t help but be reminded of the places I love in Latin America, a culture which calls to my very soul in the way Thailand does not. Thailand simply does not impress me.
Update: 5 Years Later
Much to my surprise after my initial impression related above I have returned to Thailand many times since my initial visit in 2015, often flying directly into Chiang Mai. In 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic brought world travel to a standstill I decided to remain in Thailand. I never expected to return to Thailand after writing this article yet I now must admit Chiang Mai has become one of my favorite locations in the world.
Sheltering in Thailand for the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was particularly struck by how people come together to support each other during these difficult times. Locals, expats and stranded travelers all came together to help anyone in need. There was a guesthouse near my apartment which would regularly cook up meals and hand them out for free to anyone in need.
In 2016 I chose Chiang Mai as my destination for a surgery on my foot, removing screws that had been put in after I broke a bone in Bolivia. Much to my surprise, I found I was treated as a responsible adult while also being cared for in a way that left me wanting for nothing. I will happily return to Thailand for future medical care when need arises.
Chiang Mai is my exception. I still stand by many of the negative views of my first impression yet in spite of those reservations and many more new irritations I have discovered since, I enjoy the country. There is a beauty, simplicity, and happiness to life in this wonderful city which appeals to me even when every logical analysis says it should be the type of destination I prefer to avoid. I have no doubt I will regularly return to this beautiful land.