Thailand has roughly around 67 million inhabitants, and is the 51st biggest country in the World. Until 1939 the official name was Siam. Thailand can roughly be translated into “the land of the free” - as a reminder of the fact that it is one of the few countries in the region that was never occupied by any european colonial power. The unemployment rate is less than 1%, which I simply had to investigate a little further! This would in effect mean no unemployment at all, and also be one of the lowest on the planet. Reality is, that the number can be debated. There is quite a bit of seasonal work, and many locals are working as street vendors, selling almost anything from their small carts or stalls. Well, that IS work. The question is, whether it brings an income or not. Statistics do not reveal! But the number represents the total number of people actively seeking a job, which I guess makes it valid. It also makes me wonder if you could apply just some of the “best practices” in my home state of Denmark, when starting your own business. I am not saying we should do everything like in Thailand, but some things might be worth a closer look, in order to bring down just some of the unemployment.
We only had three things in mind, when choosing Thailand as our first stop on our trip around the World: “Sunshine, beaches and mild temperatures!” And we certainly got all of that! We wanted to have a mild and easy “prologue” in order to ease into the everyday life as backpackers.
Many things can be said about Thailand. And having been there before, I certainly had my opinions as well. Sex-tourism. Old, fat men from Europe in shorts and tank-tops, lying around in the beach-chairs under the umbrellas. Tailor-made suits of questionable quality. Endless rows of stalls and stores selling the most incredible, copied crap for almost no money. Yes, it’s all there. And then there is all the more positive findings. All the things that brought us there for the start of our one-year journey.
Because Thailand can really deal with tourism! The Thais are in fact excellent at it! And even though travelling around the World as backpackers may sound cool to many people, we cannot, as a family with a small child, take in the full concept of backpacking. We cannot sleep in 8 or 12 bed dorms, and we do need a little more privacy and quiet surroundings than most youth-hostels can provide. Thailand is the perfect place for this! The low-season had just kicked in as we arrived in early April 2013. Many hotels were offering VERY favourable prices for accommodation. Prices that would not even get us a cinema-ticket, popcorn and cola back in Copenhagen.
We started with three weeks in Phuket, in southern Thailand. To many this sounds like THE most touristic place on the planet. And yes, there are quite a few tourists! But there are also many good reasons why so many people come here, year after year. The beaches are fantastic! The warm weather, even during the low-season, has a healing effect on body and soul. The sincere kindness with which all the locals meet you, is something I have yet to encounter elsewhere. And you can live and eat CHEAP in Thailand. It costs almost nothing to go out and eat. Even in the most popular tourist restaurants you can eat “all you can eat” for very little money. Early on we even learned that the restaurant in our hotel had the best Thai-kitchen in the area. Instantly it became our natural favourite, in spite of being a tourist place.
In Thailand tourists generally pay more for everything than the locals do. This means, that even when we thought we had made a good deal for a meal, the Thais would have gotten it even cheaper. That is, IF they would even come to the same restaurants, which in most cases they would not! You can argue that it is unfair that tourists pay more than locals, but I really do not care whether locals pay 1 or 2 dollars for a meal, where I pay 3 dollars. Even though we are backpackers on a tight budget, I am almost certain that we do have more financial resources than many locals have. I am only happy that they can eat for less than me. It gets somewhat annoying though, when they take me for a fool, and charge me obscene prices for cheap copies of “whatever”, trips or service-offerings. Funnily, this annoyed me more and more, as we got better and better at telling scams from the “real deal”.
And there are MANY scams to be aware of! Let me just mention one of the basic rules: If the taxi carries a “Taxa-meter” sign on the roof, do ask the driver to use his taxa-meter! It’s only right and fair. The problem is, though, that he might deny you the ride, and rather pick up someone more foolish than you! But if you really just want to get back to your hotel quickly, then at least agree on a price BEFORE the ride back home starts! Same thing applies for the Tuk-Tuks. They do not have taxa-meters, but this only makes it even more important to agree on the price in advance. We made this mistake once, and paid 4 times the real price for a trip from The Great Palace back to our hotel in Bangkok. Well, well, lesson learned!
Outside our hotel in Bangkok we greeted a group of taxi drivers every morning. They tried hard to get us onboard for trips around the city or to various fancy shopping malls. We declined every time. Until one rainy morning, when we actually wanted to go to a famous shopping mall. The day really wasn’t good for anything else, so we thought that we could just as well get that experience. The one driver who had tried the most to get us to take a ride with him wanted 400 Baht for a trip worth 85 Baht, or roughly 3,50 dollars. We would have agreed on 200 Baht as an absolute maximum. As we started to walk away, another driver discreetly offered us the trip for 150 Baht. Sold! After all, we were standing in the middle of a tropical downpour! The driver who had asked for 400 Baht did not speak to us the remainder of our time in Bangkok. In fact, I never really saw him pick up any customers at all. I wonder if he has a good business?!
So, as long as you do expect to fall into a scam if you are not aware, you CAN actually make some pretty good deals. We are travelling with literally NO excess space available. We have to throw something away in order to buy something new. So we did not buy anything. Furthermore, I do not like to buy copies of things. But it must be good business, as so many things are copied and sold for a fraction of what the originals would cost. Even items that I would have never thought profitable to copy were sold. I did not see my shirts from Hennes & Mauritz copied and sold anywhere though... Only in the previously mentioned shopping mall, targeting the upper middle-class and above, did we see the “real stuff” on the shelves. It was an interesting experience, after several weeks with all prices up for negotiation, to read the tags here!
Some of the things that we did spend money on was massages, a manicure and an occasional haircut. Even in the better hotels this is remarkably cheaper than what I am used to in Denmark. And if you do a little bit of market research there is even more money to save. A foot massage was usually priced at 300 Baht. Apprx 10-12 dollars. But the first place I asked they would give me 45 minutes only. The second place would offer me one whole hour. 15 minutes extra, and worth taking!
In order to celebrate Antons three-year birthday, we decided to spend some money on a boat-trip with snorkeling. We went by speed-boat to three small islands in the waters about 30 minutes outside Phuket Town. Even though this was a “total package” designed for tourists, it was all about giving Anton a great experience for his birthday. Which he certainly got! He was extremely excited about the snorkeling! And this in spite of the fact that he still cannot swim at all! Alexandra jumped into the water and carried him on her back, while they observed the tropical fishes in the turquoise water. I stayed on the boat to take some photos, and to take care of my increasing sea-sickness. I probably should have just jumped into the water with them and all the other snorkelers, but I only came to that conclusion hours later!
We spent a great deal of time to locate some “authentic” Thai culture. And what is that exactly? Music, art, history? Attractions, such as temples and other religious spots? Well, we did see a lot of that! Especially in Bangkok you can spend days just wandering around Wat Pho, The Great Palace, or one of the other many temples, and just feel the impressions from centuries of worshipping. And although there were many tourists in these places, the walled courtyards were so big, that you could easily walk around alone and sit down in a quiet corner to just relax and reflect. We often just sat there, talking softly about what we saw. Even though Anton is just three years old, he somehow instinctually knew that temples and grand palaces are places where you speak quietly. And he almost always remembered! He is a child and there must be room for some fun! So the quiet walks sometimes got forgotten in order to climb a fence or to sing a loud song. Luckily the Thais are very fond of children, and we never got anything else but friendly smiles in return!
In modern day Thailand you will almost only find the dreamy, idyllic postcard sceneries that you know from the travellers catalogues, at the holiday destinations. This is far away from the everyday life that the Thais themselves live. But in spite of poverty, especially in the countryside, living standards are actually not all that bad. And no matter which social class you belong to, belief is an important foundation. Apprx. 85% of Thais are active buddhists. Everywhere we saw the locals folding their hands in small prayers when passing by a temple or a statue of Buddha. It is simply in their upbringing right from they are born, and so it also has a huge influence on the way they interact with other people: In general respect and always by the ground rules of Buddhism. Rules such as no stealing, no adultery, no alcohol and no willful lies. It is also quite common that young men spend some time as monks in a temple, before they are considered “true adults”. How long is up to one self, but I don’t think it really counts before you have spent at least a week there.
Buddhism, its values and influence on society, is - in my opinion - the very essence of Thai culture. It is simply a way of living! It doesn’t matter if it’s in the country side or in the city, or whether there is a high income or not. Every time there is a trade with money involved, Thais will bow and thank you upon payment. In restaurants you always receive the bill in a small binder or on a small tray. This is where you lay the money. Again they will bow and thank you respectfully when they collect. It is a general token of respect for the money. A little bit of the same thing can be observed when it comes to the King of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. His portrait can be found in almost any household throughout the country. At least one portrait in the house! The people of Thailand has a true affection for their monarch and he is actually the longest ruling monarch in the World. In later years he has been ill and hospitalized in Bangkok, so he is rarely seen in public these days. This also explains why the previously mentioned portraits are always of an older date. But it doesn’t really matter to the Thais. The king is treated with respect. There is a bit of worrying though, about what will eventually happen in a not too distant future, when he is expected to pass away. His son, Crown Prince Vajirailongkorn is not nearly as popular and beloved as his father, and there is actually talk about the final days of the Thai monarchy.
Often the whole family is living under one roof. More generations. If they run some kind of commercial business, it is usually located on the ground floor. The house very often has 2-3 floors. Whether it is a restaurant, a small supermarket or a mechanical garage it can be found in the same house as the family living rooms. In the back of the ground floor, narrow stairs will lead up to the private rooms, which are mostly rather small and offering very little space for any privacy. At first, I would look at this through my “european eyes” as we do have quite a lot of space in comparison. The homes I have personally had, could easily have housed at least two whole Thai families, in several generations. They know nothing else. And to top it, I often felt that I could easily have used just a little more space for that home office, music room or the like. Curiously they rarely use any space for an indoor kitchen. Either they cook outside in front or back of the house, or they eat out by the many street kitchens and vendors. Often for less money than it would have cost them to cook at home.
Arguably, one of the biggest shocks upon my first trip to Thailand was the hygienic standards. Not personal hygiene. It seems to me that Thais in general are VERY aware of personal hygiene. And I do not have any problems eating in restaurants or street kitchens either. I am talking about waste! Garbage! You see it EVERYWHERE! In unfathomable quantities! The European environmental activist within me had a bit of a hard time adjusting to this fact! Creeks, bushes, rivers... All filled with waste. Even in the finer neighborhoods in the cities, where the luxury hotels are found, you just have to turn around the corner, behind the wall that surrounds the resorts, to see the piles of old tires, wrappings and used plastic bags. Coming from Europe, where we have high standards after having spent decades cleaning up nature and educating the population to act responsively, this is indeed worrying. But again, the Thais know nothing else. For instance, bins for waste are hardly ever seen outside any kiosk or shop. Not even the ones selling ice cream or candy. In the main pedestrian streets there are only very few bins found. And the ones that are there, are overfilled. It is not generally taken into consideration at all. Countless organizations are now working to educate the population and to raise the standards, but this is a project that will take decades. Visible results should not be expected within a reasonable timeframe. In Europe, we have to go back at least 40 years, if not more, to se similar conditions as the current ones in Thailand.
And this does, by the way, raise another interesting topic. Because, as Thailand may be decades behind on some levels, the Thais are pretty much up to date on others. The houses may literally be sheds. There may be piles of waste in the streets. The streets may not even be suitable for all the traffic of modern day. But you will find a 50 inch LED flatscreen on the wall, and all members of the family have a mobile telephone. If not a smartphone. And there is a fairly new car parked outside the house.
Thailand is a country that has morphed into modern times extremely fast. Especially the past 20 years has shown incredible development. Through tourism, Thailand has gotten access to “a modern world” which comes rolling in from all corners of the planet. Infrastructure and education is lacking, and only time and a targeted effort will help. Until the results really become visible, you will experience a land full of contrasts.
So what can visitors in Thailand actually do? Should we stay away in order not to support a tourism industry that doesn’t know how to protect the resources of which it thrives?
No! Of course we should visit Thailand to experience all the things we see in the intriguing catalogues. Because it IS a vital part of the ongoing development of the country. There are incredible amounts of money in Thailands tourism, and without it Thailand would meet a very dark future. As mentioned, there ARE organizations working to make Thailand a better and cleaner place, and slowly the infrastructure is getting better as well. This all costs a lot of money. Money that comes from visitors!
And we are going back as well! Because we did not manage to see and do everything we had in mind. We did not get to see the Big Buddha on the hill outside Phuket Town. We missed out on several important palaces in Bangkok. Especially in the intense heat and humidity of Bangkok, we put several things on hold. We decided that Anton should also have a saying in our daily planning, and often times he would rather play by the pool. And with many, pretty good street kitchens just around the corner from the hotel, we did not mind staying within our immediate neighborhood.
We still have many good reasons to come to Thailand. Not just Bangkok or Phuket, but also other corners of the big country. Having been there a couple of times by now, we are able to chose exactly what we want to see and experience, and do so knowing what we will actually get for our money. Thailand IS beautiful, breathtaking and seducing. The food is absolutely incredible. And the sincere kindness from Thai people will definitely please most of future visitors.
Click here to see more pictures from our adventures in Thailand!
Click here to read what Alexandra thinks about Thailand!
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