Earlier this year, I traveled to Southeast Asia for four months, visiting Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Vietnam and Japan (five hour layover, so sort of). I ended up taking somewhere near 2,000 photos but don’t worry– I won’t dump nearly that many on you. What follows is the first in a series covering things I did in each country, using some of the photos to give you an idea of what being a tourist there is like.
I’d like to note that these accounts are purely from the perspective as a tourist. I’ll stay away from claims of authenticity and “the real,” as they’re murky avenues to venture down. As a foreigner with the incredible privilege of traveling to these places, I’m in no position to decide what a true experience may be.
I wrote an infrequent series of posts on another blog, Delicious Ambiguity, so check out some posts from when I was traveling on the circuit. Looking to travel to Southeast Asia? Go to www.travelfish.org for everything you need to know.
All of the photos were taken by me (click to view a larger size). I hope you enjoy!
Harlan Post Jr.
After more than 48 hours spent traveling, my three flight journey from Chicago to London to Bahrain to Bangkok left me loopy, excited, and generally relieved that my legs could be fully stretched out. What was to follow was a wonderful introduction to Asia: friendly people, spicy food, and breathtaking, if crowded, landmarks.
When you think of Bangkok, an image that probably pops in your head is of The Hangover-style debauchery. While this surely draws an appeal for many, it’s not a fair characterization of what Thailand is like for most tourists. Thailand has become an increasingly popular stop over the last thirty years, especially for Europeans.
In a super-scientific study of travelers I met, I ran into many more Europeans than Americans (and saw a lot of Chinese tourists, too). With more Americans taking the around-the-world journey to Thailand, people are beginning to realize that Thailand is a safe, comfortable and easy place to visit. This is no accident–the country has intentionally positioned itself as a tourist haven. A 2014 report estimates that as much as 20% of the country’s GDP is either a direct or indirect result of tourism.
This includes an incredible amount of growth in the past few years. World Bank estimates that there were about 16 million tourist arrivals in 2010 and the number spiked to 26.5 million in 2013. The last figure made it tenth in the world in 2013 for tourist arrivals, the second most in Asia behind China.
A huge draw for tourists are the country’s magnificent temples, which are spectacularly constructed and maintained.
These temples are sprawling, magnificent constructions. With thousands of visitors each day, sites like the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Arun are filled with eye-popping colors, elaborate mosaics constructed of glass, marble, ceramic, as well as gold and copper insets. No matter where you turn, you’re greeted by these stunning visuals and you can’t help but be amazed.
What is also stunning, though, are the amount of tourists in these temples. It’s often difficult to get good views of certain buildings and pieces of art. You spend just as much time jostling to get around and through other tourists as you spend appreciating the temples. Tourists come in droves, jumping off their buses, taking photos for an hour, then hopping back on to see the next site. Sure, proceeds are said to benefit restoration of temples around Bangkok and the rest of the country. How much tourism is beneficial and how much destroys the physical and cultural significance of these historic landmarks? Like other landmarks around the world, how can a necessary balance be reached? And what does it say about these sites that far more foreigners are visiting these sites than natives?
For better and for worse, this is the reality of tourism in Thailand. Especially as a solo traveler, as I was, you have to learn to embrace the sea of tourists you’ll always encounter–or at least learn to tolerate them.
There are other temples that aren’t so crowded, allowing you a quiet, spiritual visit that would never cross your mind at the crowded ones. A favorite was Wat Suthat. In a loud, crowded, and bustling city like Bangkok, temples like these take you to an entirely different place–filled with a permanent tranquility that is representative of the Buddhist religion that is dominant here (around ~93% of Thais are followers, according to Pew Research Center). These temples are incredibly important as the religion elicits deep reverence no matter where you are in the country.
Touring these temples, the city and some of its outskirts was especially worthwhile because of my traveling companion. I met Kanisorn, a Thai gentleman in his sixties, through my sister who works in high school student exchange. Kanisorn works in the same profession, so he gladly volunteered to show me around during my first days in Asia. Soft-spoken, humble, and incredibly friendly, chatting with him over dishes of spicy papaya salad, noodles and cups of tea was a delight. He taught me Thai phrases and we shared stories of our childhoods and travel.
He also helped me contextualize the role of Buddhism in Thailand. With his limited mobility, visits were filled with slow, contemplative walks and lots of silence. Sporadically he would tell me a brief history of the temple, the mythological stories depicted on grand wall tapestries (often the Ramakien, the Thai national epic) and the importance of kneeling and bowing three times toward the Lord Buddha at the temple.
I won’t lie–I did enjoy a lot of the typical tourist things I did in Bangkok. I got drunk on the kitschy, crowded, and overwhelming Khao San Road with other backpackers. I visited a cavernous mall and got caught up in an insane Pikachu fest. I ate Pad Thai. I rode in a Tuk Tuk (in what would be many over the next few months). Spending time with Kanisorn gave me an opportunity to take a deep breath and was an affirmation that we all have the ability to connect, no matter where we live, but we don’t often have the chance. Knowing that helped me feel more at ease being a solo traveler for the next four months.
What else did I enjoy?
From the Krabi region of southern Thailand to Chiang Mai in the north, Thailand is full of tropical beauty.
Near Krabi, Railay Beach is a fine example. Sitting on the mainland but only accessible by boat, stunning limestone cliffs tower around the area, creating a natural barrier from the east. The cliffs feel like you’re in a sort of Jurassic Park, expecting to witness a pterodactyl sweep out a cave. With turquoise waters and some lookouts with sweeping views, as well as rock climbing and kayaking, this is a great place to play, party and chill out. Night life often includes live bands and beers, with bars openly advertising joints and “happy shakes” (‘shroomy) for the wilder ones.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city, about twelve hours north of Bangkok by bus or one hour’s flight. It’s a nice place to spend a few days and wander. I spent a lot of time wandering its streets, which can be surprisingly quiet when you’re away from the tourist district or main thoroughfares. I was content to walk and walk and walk in silence, becoming sufficiently lost until I figured I should make my way back.
Aside from eating, walking was my favorite way to explore and pass time. I’d get tired of the list of tourist attractions and figured I would be able to find something to pique my interest. There were days where it didn’t happen, but usually something worthwhile would come along. One such time was when I made my way to vegetarian/vegan restaurant, solely owned and operated by a Thai woman in her mid-20s.
I went in the mid-afternoon on a weekday, so I was the only patron in the restaurant (around lunch and dinnertime, though, it’s swamped). This lull gave me a chance to talk to her about her restaurant and aspirations as a chef. With the restaurant so busy, she works 16+ hour days. Past staff hadn’t lived up to the expectations she holds for the restaurant, so she does everything herself. Everything is vegan or vegetarian, down to the meat substitute that’s often used for dishes. Most dishes are Thai. Also running cooking classes on the side, it’s a lot for one person to do.
She’s often asked to move to the U.S. and open a restaurant. It’s a dream of hers, but she’s perceptive, understanding that they’d want her to do most of the work while reaping most of the benefits. She wants to be her own boss, and it’s easy to see why. Working so much is the reality of her situation, she says, as the Thai business environment isn’t very beneficial for small businesses owners like her. Still, she maintains that it’s better than before she started the restaurant, when she was a manicurist.
In a perfect world, she would build her own house near Chiang Mai that would double as a school for aspiring chefs like her. Time will tell if she’ll have the time and resources to do so. At times she sounds more defeated than anything, the weight of her responsibilities at the restaurant too much to handle. At others, she speaks with cautious optimism, hoping this is a temporary step that will bring her closer to better opportunities.
It wasn’t a conversation I would’ve expected. I’d like to say that that sort of candidness is something I was able to encounter a lot on my travels, but it wasn’t. Travel isn’t always full of mystical and profound moments of connection. Neither is everyday life back home. When those moments do happen, though? It’s well worth the wait.