01.12.2012 - 16.12.2012 30 °C
Thailand. The epicenter of Southeast Asian travel and home to some of the most touristified destinations in the world. For these reasons I was not particularly excited to see the country. While I am sure it was an very interesting place 30 years ago when my parents visited untouched hill tribes and had some of the southern beaches all to themselves, everything I had heard about the country today gave me the impression that 'untouched' no longer exists in Thailand. Nonetheless, I had to fly both in and out of Bangkok in order to get to Burma and I am not one to make decisions solely on hearsay, so I decided to at least give Thailand a few weeks. I had heard all the crazy stories about the southern islands: the pristine beaches, the overdeveloped tourism industry and the westerner dominated parties. But given the amount of partying I had just done in China, I decided to save that trip for another time and just spend a couple weeks in the north relaxing before my flight to Yangon. I had heard that the north is a lot less touristy and far more laid back than the south so I was expecting a chilled-out vibe - with the exception of Bangkok of course.
I arrived in Bangkok mid-afternoon and in mid-peak tourist season. As I left the airport my mental image of the metropolis, crafted from popular media in the west, as a huge, dirty, underdeveloped and generally crazy city was fully intact. That image, however, was quickly shattered. Perhaps it was because I had been in China for too long, but as I rode the air-conditioned airport express bus through the city, I couldn't believe how clean Bangkok was, how modern it was, and how many westerners were roaming its streets. The traffic was not as bad as expected, the sidewalks were relatively well kept, and the buildings all looked quite new. Every major western fast food and clothing chain was represented and there were two Seven Elevens on every block. No joke, I am pretty sure now that Bangkok has more Seven Elevens per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. After absorbing this initial impression I thought to myself: 'this must just be a facade hiding the true crazy and dark underbelly of this infamous city which will emerge after the sun goes down.' Well if Bangkok does have a crazy underbelly, after a week of checking out the nightlife, I didn't see much of it. What I found instead was a ridiculous amount of tourist driven strip clubs and go-go bars where bored Thai girls pick up old sex tourists, massive tourist bar streets where most of the Thai people you see are selling you t-shirts or street food, Thai only clubs where travelers are typically shunned and perhaps a couple typical pubs where you could just get a beer while being harassed by only a few prostitutes.
Then again, this initial impression could have something to do with the travelers I met and hung out with during my first few days in the city. Instead of solo backpackers, my hostel was full of three week vacations who were far more interested in seeing sex shows and hanging out at strip clubs rather than meeting any actual Thai people. I will admit, if you go to Thailand, you have to spend at least one night at Nana plaza or Patpong seeing a sex or ping pong show where an unattractive Thai girl performs miracles with her private parts - ei. shooting a dart. Its part of the experience and I will also admit that it was one of the most interesting things I saw in the city. But as much as I lobbied for the nightly hostel party group to try something new like going to a regular bar where we could maybe meet some locals, every night sex tourism is all anybody wanted to see. These guys were generally adamant at the beginning of the night that it was just for kicks and they would never actually pay for sex. But a couple times I had to leave the go-go bars by myself in search of other people to hang out with since it was clear my bars mates were not leaving until sunrise.
Needless to say, I didn't really enjoy my first few days in Bangkok. And, to be honest, I was not in the best state of mind for a city like that anyways. I was experiencing a 'China Hangover' of sorts, something which I had gone through before when I left the China the first time for Vietnam. After being immersed in China for so long, arriving in Thailand gave me a bizarre type of culture shock. Not from Thai culture but from my own culture. Like so many other major travel destinations, Thailand has a massive and overdeveloped western cultural bubble created and fostered in large part by tourism. I wasn't used to seeing or hanging out with so many westerners again and I found the attitude towards Asia that many of the tourists in Bangkok held to be pretty ridiculous and only possible where such a cultural bubble exists.
My china hangover was exacerbated when, after a few days in Bangkok, I received some bad news from China. ZhuQi, a girl I spent time with in Dali, had agreed to fly to Burma to travel with me for a week over Christmas. She had booked her flights and we had started planning a trip. But a few days after she sent me her flight details, she randomly and mysteriously cancelled on me refusing to even give me a reason. I was left confused, a little angry and not enjoying my surroundings. I wanted to get out of Bangkok but, since there was a national holiday, my Burmese visa would take a week to process. So I was stuck.
Luckily, things slowly started to turn around. While walking through Lumphini park (a large peaceful lake filled area and one of my favorite spots in Bangkok) I approached a Thai university student named Fay. I had noticed she was reading an English book so I decided to strike up a conversation. Her English was not great and I was looking for a local to hang out with so I said I would help her study if she showed me around her city a bit. It was a good deal since I enjoyed practicing English with her more than going out with the tourists at my hostel. That day happened to be the King Rama IV's birthday so we went the large evening celebration at the royal palace. It was a unique experience. Tens of thousands of Thais all wearing yellow (the King's color) congregated outside the palace for a candle light vigil. Then everyone set hundreds of lanterns off into the night sky, a beautiful sight. I enjoyed my last few days in Bangkok more than my first as I met Fay a couple more times in Lumphini for a some afternoon English sessions (she taught me a little Thai as well) and began sampling more of Bangkok's excellent street food. But eventually my Burmese visa was ready and it was time to move on to Chiang Mai, an ancient northern city which, I was hoping, would be more laid-back and less touristy than Bangkok.
Chiang Mai was more laid-back but, unfortunately, just as touristy as Bangkok and the landscape was surprisingly flat for a city that was supposed to be in the Himalayan foothills. There were many beautiful old Wats throughout the city center but the other buildings were all relatively new so the 'ancient-town' feeling I was expecting was absent. Instead, there was lots of restaurants and bars including quite a few of the go-go variety. I met some cool people there, mainly a couple of Brits (Hugh and Gemma) which made going out a good time but I wasn't hugely impressed by the city itself. Like Bangkok, its the kind of place that is fun only if you meet or go with a good group. There was a reggae festival going on while I was there which was fun but had a 9:1 foreigner-Thai ratio. I remember hearing some festival-goers talk about how they loved Thai culture which expressed itself through reggae and partying. I wanted to turn to them and say "this is not Thai culture, this is our culture implanted in Thailand..." but I bit my tongue.
My favorite part of being in Chiang Mai was getting out of the city on a motorbike. I spent an entire day exploring the hills which were a few miles outside of town. The most popular sites where not particularly interesting but as I got farther away from the city the hill scenery was great. This day of riding was enough to convince me to rent a motorbike for four days and drive through the mountains of northern Thailand to Pai, a small hippie town close to the Burmese border.
This four hour ride was by far the best thing I did in Northern Thailand. I rode up into the mountains on a 762-bend road famous for causing bus sickness (they sell t-shirts all over Pai saying "I did the 762 bends and did not get sick!") but its well paved with few potholes so I felt comfortable. The fact that I found it difficult to remember to stay on the left side of the dividing line was the biggest safety hazard.
I arrived in Pai to find yet another tourist mecca where foreigners outnumbered locals 2:1 and a city of 3000 Thais had more bars than Yantai (my Chinese home of 6.5 million), but at least the tourist bubble in Pai is more tasteful and relaxed than anywhere else in Northern Thailand. Not many of the sex tourists make it this far, the bars have a distinct reggae-hippieish vibe and there were a few more backpackers around. The scenery was also fantastic. Lush green hills and rice patties with rivers flowing in every which direction. I got a nice riverside bungalow for cheap and hung out with a Maltese rasta man who we called 'Malta' and a Spanish student who we called 'Spain'. When you've been traveling for a while, nationalities provide useful monikers since rarely do people remember each others names. During the days Malta, Spain and I rode motorbikes around the countryside and at night we hit the bars for some pool and a few drinks. After a couple days of this routine I rode my motorbike back to Chiang Mai (developing an eye infection in the process) then caught the overnight back to Bangkok. I enjoyed my time in Pai and was happy to be sad to be leaving somewhere in Thailand.
I arrived in Bangkok early in the morning a day before my flight to Yangon. My task was to figure out a money situation for my trip to Burma before the banks closed at 6PM. Since Burma has no foreign ATMs and no one accepts credit cards, you have to bring your entire budget with you in the form of American dollars bills. You then exchange the bills for Kyat on the black market. Its the only way to travel to Burma. Furthermore, the bills have to be brand new with no tears, creases, stamps or writing. I would later learn how strict this rule really is in Burma. I figured withdrawing new American bills in Bangkok would not be much of a problem since it is an international business city and there are many branches of large American banks. This task proved to be much more difficult than I had imagined.
First, I looked for a foreign bank which would allow me to withdraw American dollars directly instead of withdrawing baht and converting it. The local banks pointed me in several different directions but I had no luck. I eventually found a Citibank but since it was a Saturday their foreign services were unavailable. After three hours I gave up and began looking for a exchange booth which had new American bills. I went all over Bangkok asking bank after bank but no one had any new bills. Eventually I found a bank where the clerk apprehensively said had a few new bills but they could not perform a cash advance with my credit card and I had to withdraw money in small increments if I used their ATM being charged by them and Scotiabank every time. Since I was not sure the bills they had would pass in Burma and to avoid huge withdrawal fees, I went searching again. I only had a couple hours until the banks and exchanges closed after which I would have no chance of getting the funds before my flight so I was beginning to get a little worried. With time running down I found a large currency exchange company who assured me they had lots of new bills. It was a big relief but when I went to their ATM to withdraw baht my card was denied. I told them I would return in a few minutes thinking that it must have been an issue with the machine but when I tried at least ten other ATMs from different international banks in the area, every time I was denied. I had used this card to withdrawal money in Thailand several times before so I did not know why it simply would not work. My heart sank as I realized that I simply could not withdraw the baht in needed, had only a half hour til the banks closed and would likely have to miss my flight to Yangon the next day. Furthermore, I was already within the 48 hour deadline that Air Asia offers for flight changes and would likely have to book a completely new flight with no refund.
I felt downright shitty as I jumped on the subway heading back to my hostel so I could use the WIFI and call my bank branch in Canada. When, after several attempts, I finally got a hold of them the support rep informed me that I had a daily limit on my cards and could not withdraw the 35 000 baht I needed in one day. I had the limits immediately raised but by the time I got off the phone it was after six. The banks were closed and I was screwed. The mishap was going to cost me about a $100 for a new flight and a few extra days in Bangkok. It doesn't sound like much, but when your on a backpacker's budget, loosing $100 and a few days in an expensive city is a real tough pill to swallow.
I was wallowing in self-pity when it suddenly occurred to me that the one bank I had found earlier in the day which had a few new American bills was in a shopping mall and it was possible that it would be open a little later than the others. As a last ditch attempt I jumped on the back of a moto and told the driver to book it to central mall. He understood the urgency and gunned it through the traffic. Unfortunately, there are two central malls in Bangkok in two opposite directions and, of course, he took me to the wrong one. After he realized the mistake he gunned it again and this time in the right direction. I arrived at the mall and ran up three escalators to find the bank still open for another 30 minutes. I skipped the queue and asked the clerk if she still had the American dollars. She glanced in the register and, looking a bit confused, nodded yes. I raced over to the ATM and, thank god, my card finally worked. I went back to the clerk with 34 000 baht in hand which she promptly exchanged for US$1100. With only minutes to spare, I finally had my brand-new crisp American dollar bills and was ready for my flight to Burma. I was so relieved I was almost in tears as I made way back to the hostel.
After such a long day running around in the stifling heat of Bangkok, I was looking forward to a long night sleep before my flight the next day but as I entered my hostel a group of backpackers who had organized a night out on couchsurfing were on their way out. They asked me to join and I figured a deserved a couple beers after my ordeal. That night out ended up being my best in Bangkok. It was random night where we went from a Thai style biker bar to a string of road side make shift camper van bars and then just wondered the streets until the last of us returned as the sun was rising. It was nice to finally have a good night out in the big city. I felt as though it was long overdue. Its far from my favorite city, but perhaps Bangkok a little something more to it after all. I boarded the plane to Yangon feeling pretty hungover but good.
Nonetheless, despite my last fun night in Thailand, I can't say I fully enjoyed my first taste of the country. The scenery in the northern hills was nice, Pai is a special spot and I can see Bangkok being a fun place to go with a group of friends for a week but I'm not sure Thailand is the best place for a solo backpacker. One thing I have learned on the road is that traveling is just as much about the people you meet than the places you go. In Thailand, instead of meeting other long term solo travelers I typically met short term bigger budget partiers or those only interested in sex tourism. I also found it very difficult to experience anything truly Thai save perhaps for the food (which is excellent). It seems as though the tourist track is so well developed that its become an obstacle to experiencing the country itself. I was lucky enough to meet a local, however, I feel as though most tourists who come to Thailand rarely interact with a Thai person outside of a restaurant or hotel. With that said, maybe I wasn't in the best state of mind during my stay and, if I had met am interesting group of people, I probably would have had a completely different experience.
At the moment, Thailand is not a place I'm dying to go back to but I still have a couple weeks to travel the south when I return from Burma, so I guess the jury is still out.