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First impressions of Thailand

| 30 comments | Category: travel

Travel update: no language tips in this (long) post!

After travelling for about 7 years already, I thought I was immune to surprises, shocks and general wide-eyed awe.

And then I came to Thailand!

There’s nothing I can say about Thailand that hasn’t already been blogged, Lonely Planeted, Documentary Channelled, photographed or twittered a million times already. This country is on pretty much every RTW ticket and gap-year itinerary and is usually among the first countries that travellers end up in.

However, what is slightly different for me compared to other Siam first-timers, is my mission to speak Thai in just 8 weeks (so far it’s going according to plan) and the fact that I have more travel behind me than most of my fellow temporary farangs here (however, I’ve already met a couple of people here who could see my travel years and raise me 10+). So to be totally honest I’ve had no strong feeling of culture shock here and have been comfortable and confident in finding my way around.

Having said that, there are quite a few things that have stood out for me in these two weeks:

Thai massages

I took a brief training course in India in Ayurvedic massage, and that was my first true exposure to proper massage techniques. I both gave and received enough massages to get the general gist of how they worked, and presumed that other international versions were just massaging different parts of the body in slightly different ways.

This is not how I’d describe Thai massage.

It’s more like your legs and arms getting pounded, squeezed, poked and squashed, then a standard nice back/head massage, and then pre-football-training aerobic stretching applied to a limp puppet… in a good way.

Before I even attempt to take a course, I’ve been getting as many massages as possible (hard life, I know) usually for about 200 Baht (€4/$6) for an hour. And I still have no idea how to summarise them because each one I’ve gotten has been completely different; ranging from excruciatingly painful by a distracted gobshite not even looking at what he’s doing, who seemed to prefer massaging nerves rather than muscles, to an absolutely relaxing experience that made me feel great for hours afterwards.

To those who haven’t tried, I’d highly recommend one, but get a location recommendation beforehand. I’m just randomly picking places and regretting it about half the time.

And if you are a single guy, you have an entirely different problem on your hands. Then again it’s hardly a problem for many; the famous “happy ending” extra that they offer you in less professional parlours.

My random stumblings of course brought me to one of these so far (there’s a lot) and I had the rather amusing task of politely turning down a massage to the one part of me that she “missed”. I’ve been in way more awkward situations than this one before, and was very much psychologically prepared for this by the many stories told to me by some more… “eager” friends of mine who’ve travelled to Thailand. So to be totally honest I found her clumsy “accidents” of brushing against me in the wrong places (to get me excited) to be just silly. I put a stop to it before she got carried away.

The land of smiles?

Don’t get me wrong; I find the Thais to be exceptionally friendly and I am really looking forward to getting to know them better through their language.

But Thailand’s claim to its subtitle has escaped me. If you compare it to places where workdrones tend to walk around with surely expressions on their face, like some major cities in Europe, then sure, they smile more.

I just do not understand why it’s “the” land of smiles based on what I’ve seen in comparison to other places. Brazilians smile way more than what I’ve seen here for example. Maybe the citylife/touristy nature of Bangkok and Patong have jaded the locals and I’ll see way more cheeriness if I go off the beaten track, (in fact, I’m starting to see more smiles now that I’m in a quieter, but still a touristy beach at Karon) but excluding populated areas isn’t much of a land.

It’s not that it isn’t a land of smiles, I just find it pretty much the same level of positivity that I’ve seen in several other cultures. I’d call Thailand a land of smiles rather than the land of smiles…

Affordable luxury

My first week in Bangkok was fun after I got off Kao San road. That’s a great centre of gravity for backpackers, but if you don’t drink you might get bored of it quickly. I don’t think I can call myself a backpacker any more; I did that for many years, but now I have a different style of travelling (and I even ditched my 6th backpack and now travel with a suitcase; more on why this has simplified things for me another time).

I moved into my first ever 4 star hotel (by choice; I’ve stayed in hotels a few times before in the past for just one night and only out of lack of cheaper options) by a metro stop (สถานีเพชรบุรี/Petchaburi).

I was happy to spend a few days there; for just over 1,000 Baht (about €25/$35) I had a king sized bed, a huge modern room (serviced and made up every day), fridge, TV, great ensuite bathroom, air conditioning (it’s around 32ºC in Bangkok in the streets these days), very secure, huge filling breakfast included and wifi and a working desk. The last two are the reason I was paying “so much” (I need to be able to work wherever I go). You can actually easily get a room to yourself for 3 times less than that and still have lots of luxuries, but for the short term I was happy with what I had; especially since I was right by a metro.

Paying that daily isn’t realistic for the long term; I’m hoping to find a Bungalow somewhere soon and pay rent per week/month rather than per day to significantly reduce the cost. But I still felt like pampering myself a bit, and €25 is the price of a bunkbed in a hostel in some major European cities… I’m just not used to “affordable” luxury, so I’m trying it out :)

However, based on how much other tourists complain about insignificant things in hotels compared to those in budget accommodation, I don’t think I’d travel hotels all the time, even if I could afford it. Too much luxury would make you have unrealistic standards for everywhere you go and seemingly turn you into a whiny crybaby, which I’d rather avoid!

Location independent = Location unsure

I’m sending this post from Karon , a medium sized touristy town on Phuket island (pronounced poo-get despite what the not-very-useful romanisation tells you). I had no particular itinerary when I got here, and I still haven’t a clue where I’ll be in two days time.

The problem is where will I find that Bungalow? I asked online forums, fellow travellers, Thailand experts and friends about where to go weeks before coming here and all the time since I got here. Asking that question will give you a list of pretty much every destination in Thailand if you ask it enough times. It depends on too many factors. Some people like the neon lights with nightlife all week, some like laid back, for some a breathtaking paradise view is essential, others like adventure and others still have their favourite village with no other Europeans around for miles.

I don’t particularly need any of these. I’m not on the hunt for some lost paradise (it’s actually funny how many people on online Thailand forums ask for the name of a “secluded paradise with no tourists”, not realising that publishing its name online to a tourist kind of defeats the purpose), or some false sense of authenticity in a mere 8 week stay. I am well aware of the fact that I’m a tourist here; a forbidden word among a lot of superior backpackers who know better.

Since I’ll likely be back to Thailand again in future, I am devoting most of this trip to look around to find a place that I like. Simple as that.

But it’s hard to put what I’m looking for into words (trust me, I’ve tried!) – I do actually like a wee bit of home (i.e. Europe) around so I don’t feel homesick; Italian restaurants, crêpe stalls, some other travellers, things available to those who can afford it like day trips, windsurfing/massage etc. lessons. So yes, I do actually want to go to a “touristy” town. Most of these are based on the beach, so that’s why I’m covering coastal areas right now, but I don’t actually need the beach for anything more than a nice morning jog on the sand. I’m not here to work on my tan.

I could totally see myself in Bangkok, since it has everything I could possibly want in a city… but when you see so many people wearing face masks to protect themselves from the pollution from the city’s incredible amount of traffic, it makes you think twice about a medium-term stay if you are asthmatic. A lot of people warned me that Bangkok was chaotic, but I find it nothing of the sort. The road traffic is horrible, but the public transport on the skytrain and metro are very clean modern and cheap, and even the Chao Phraya express through the river and the canal boats get you to most other destinations.

I moved on to Patong for the weekend and there was a little too much going on for my tastes. Neon lights and constant reminders of sex tourism is not my scene. Karon is a slight improvement over Patong, but still doesn’t strike me as a place that would suit me to stick around long in.

Vague itinerary for next weeks

I think I’ll spend a night in Phuket town Tuesday before heading to Phi Phi. It seems just bouncing around is the thing you have to do, if you want to find which island/beach/town is best for you! I’ve got momentum behind me, so even if I find my perfect spot soon I might still move on to get some places I had wanted to see (Krabi & Ko Samui) off my checklist, so I can relax in one place for my last weeks and know where to go directly to, next time.

If I move fast enough, I might make it to Ko Phangan for the famous full moon party (30th), but I’d hate to skip places just to be there on time, since it’s on the other side of this stretch of Thailand. So if I miss it, I’ll catch it on my next Thailand trip. The next one (Mar 1st) is too close to my flight out.

So it looks like I’ll have to hop around for a few weeks. Even if I only find my ideal spot on the last day before going back to Bangkok to fly out, I’ll still be happy, knowing that it’s there for next time.

I did the same in Goa in India and travelled for several weeks before settling down (for a month). I hated the north and didn’t get along with other travellers there (minimalistic drugged out yoga retreaters vs non-drinking non-smoking yuppie language nerd travelling with enough technology to make the starship Enterprise look like a lightbulb… is not a good mix) but then I found a place I was happy to settle in, in the south; Palolem. I’d like to find my Palolem in Thailand!

Note that not going somewhere touristy will have little influence on the speak-Thai-in-8-weeks mission. I don’t need to go to a village; I can learn (and have learned) languages in touristy places and I’d just get bored in a town with little to do when I’m not working. I’ll have to devote a whole post to this some time because a lot of people seem to think immersion is only possible in villages off the beaten track and I disagree. If you especially like villages then that’s an excellent reason to spend time in one. I don’t.

Things I’ve never seen before here

To end the post (sorry for the length), I’ll give a random list of things I’ve come across that I’ve never seen at home or in my other travels before:

  • the wai - the Thai greeting of putting your palms together and bowing slightly. I really like it! I do it to everyone before talking to them, and I will definitely miss it when I get back to Europe. As you can see in the photo above, even Ronald McDonald does it
  • Casual sales of firearms. This is new to me; in broad daylight in a mall in Patong and in a flea market in Bangkok I’ve been very openly approached by the Thai smile and presented a “menu” with various hand guns and rifles that I can buy (free bullets included!) Usually you have to go underground if you want a gun. I don’t particularly like this “freedom” to be honest, but I presume Thai laws about firearms are much less strict than in the west.
  • Fakes. Rolexes, Calvin Klein underwear, etc. I’ve seen lots of fakes elsewhere, but not this vast amount of them for sale everywhere tourists are. I think I’m the only one here with actual Havaiana flip-flops. The price for the fake ones are the same as the price for real ones if you buy them in Brazil…
  • Go go bars. One visit was enough to satisfy my curiosity, and I won’t say what happens in there since I know I have some young readers!
  • Thais’ level of English in the tourist industry. Apart from India (where English is a ‘subsidiary official language’), I’ve only ever been in Europe and the Americas. In Thailand I’ve only been in very touristy places so far and I find people’s level of English to be quite low. This is not something I’m complaining about, since I’m here specifically to learn Thai. But it’s new to me when dealing with people used to tourists (I’m not talking about random people in the street). It has been frustrating having my orders in restaurants messed up or taxis taking me to the wrong places, despite the fact that I’m sure I have extremely easy to understand English compared to many other natives. But this is just further motivation to continue working on my Thai so I can soon explain it to them in their own language. In what I’ve learned from Thai I can see why European languages would be quite hard for them, especially when it comes to grammar. People have been very happy to hear the little I have already (I’m still working on the theory behind tones and their use in the writing system before I open the floodgates of conversation!) although that reaction is the same in other places with other languages.
  • Hotel cards. I’m not a regular frequenter of hotels, so I don’t know if this is international, but the hotels I’ve been in have cards to open the door that you also insert into a slot inside to activate the power. Since you need the card to get back in, you take it with you and the room is not powered while you are gone. I find this to be a very very clever idea for conserving energy (since there will obviously be forgetful clients who don’t turn off lights or leave the A/C running while they are out).
  • The glass in the picture on the right. I asked for a non-alcoholic cocktail (or mocktail as I like to call it), since someone just clicked the link on the site to treat me to one! I had a great laugh at the container it was served in!

Sorry for the very long post. If you made it to the end, congratulations!

In the next post I’ll get back to language learning suggestions, but getting used to a new country is part of the adventure and perhaps a few of you might have been curious to hear how that aspect was going for me this time!

I hope nobody takes offence to anything I’ve written here, I’m just thinking aloud and sharing with those curious. Feel free to explain things to me that I’ve misunderstood or share your thoughts on Thailand in the comments! :)

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Comments: If you liked this post or have anything to say, please leave a comment! I love reading them :)
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  • http://vagaben.com/ VagaBen

    Great post, will follow your quest to learn Thai.
    I've also discovered that the only way to throughly
    learn a new language is to travel to a country
    that speeks it mother-tongue.

  • liq

    The hotel card is a normal thing in every *** and more hotel in Europe. This way noone has to change the locks and it makes no problem if you lost your key.

    What about food, man? Try out those bugs, snakes, spiders and everything!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    The hotel card is new for me since I'm new to hotels ;)
    No bugs snakes and spiders for me thanks, I'm a vegetarian.

  • zoltaniani

    cool post Benny..it was different than most of your posts..but that's why it's interesting..keep up a good work..slainte

  • http://twitter.com/thaifaq Khun Tony

    You should try visiting Japan after Thailand, it is pretty much the complete opposite of Thailand. Since this is your first visit to Asia it would be interesting to read of your experiences in the two countries.

  • Lauren

    “non-smoking yuppie language nerd travelling with enough technology to make the starship Enterprise look like a lightbulb” LOL! Love it! Great post, Benny!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks ;) I don't plan to turn this into a travel blog, but based on the survey a few weeks ago, several people said they wanted more in depth coverage of my travels. Hopefully these kinds of (infrequent) posts will do that trick and let people get to know me a bit better!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Japan is definitely on my list of places to go to, but since I'd like to spend the majority of my time in Tokyo, I'll have to wait until I've saved up money, whereas only a few hundred euro in your pocket is fine for a few months in Thailand!
    What do you mean by the “opposite”? :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad someone appreciated the description I gave myself :P When I write the post about why I prefer to travel with a suitcase I may mention some of the crazy 21st century technology I pack that most minimalist light travellers would groan at :D

  • martinperry

    I'll add my suggestion to the list of places for you to try out, when I used to live in Phuket I stayed down on the south of the Island, in a place called Sai Yuan, it is in-between Rawai and Nai Harn and is a lovely little spot with just the right mix of locals, expats, beach & nightlife and not too far from Patong if you ever fancied a much livelier night out.

  • Janna

    I like this post!
    I've never been to Thailand – going there is one of my dreams.
    I'm sure you will find the right place for you in Thailand!
    I do also have similar ones in some countries. When I was in Slovenia, for example, I visited Pirano, a small town by the sea. I really fell in love with it. Don't know why, I simply feel great when I'm there…. :)

    Have a nice day! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks for the encouragement :) I'm seeing that the “right place” has less to do with a nice beach and pretty mountains and more to do with the people there; both locals and other travellers. I have some friends with me in Ko Phi Phi right now, so I'm really enjoying myself! (But we are all leaving to other places after a few days..)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Thanks! I've already left Phuket, but if I pass through it again in my travels I'll try to check out Sai Yuan ;)

  • Pak

    I've already seen this kind of card that turns off electricity once in Paris. It took me a few minutes before understanding how to turn the light on.

  • Adam

    Possibly useful trivia: in some places you don't actually need to insert the card into the slot on the wall to keep the electricity going. Sometimes any sort of card-shaped object will do, such as a business card.

  • travoholic

    Hey Benny! I have missed reading your blog the past few months but I'm back in KL for a short stint of working and will hopefully get to catch up. Your take on Thailand is refreshing… it's nice to hear someone admit to being a tourist there!

    I think your Thai challenge will be one of your toughest yet and am looking forward to reading about it.

    I'm currently living around the corner in Sumatra a couple of hours from Padang volunteering with http://www.hodr.org. If you fancy having a crack at Bahasa Indonesia and building houses, stop in for awhile. Otherwise hopefully our paths will cross before I leave Asia.

    Happy language learning!

  • Adam

    @travoholic: Hey, how near Padang are you guys working? I'm down in Bandar Lampung, thinkin about a possible long weekend trip over to Padang. Possibly meet up for some masakan padang with a fellow Indonesian expat?

  • travoholic

    Hey Adam,

    I'm in KL at the moment until next weekend on my break and don't want to take more time off for another break to Padang but if you want to come to us we're in a town called Sungai Geringging which is just over an hour by bus from Pariaman. I'm not sure how far Pariaman is from Padang but I would guess about the same. Once you get to the town just get on a moto taxi for 3000 and they will assume you're heading to Rumah Asmeda where all the other white people are and drop you right in the driveway. For volunteering info check out the site. If you planned to stay in SG you would need to work but there's no minimum time commitment and it's fun.

    I wouldn't say I'm an Indo expat but it would be great to meet up with someone who is!

  • Adam

    A bule treasure hunt in rural west sumatra? Sounds like a hoot! I'm thinkin mid-february might be a good time to come check you guys out for a few days. Have a nice break, and sampai jumpa!

    Adam

  • http://learnspanishfastcourse.com/ Jay

    Cool, i have heard very good things about Thailand and one day i want to visit it. Though i can definately imagine that it's very challenging to learn the language.

  • Renata Capdeville

    I found the description great too.
    Please, keep bringing these comments about the places and things you are discovering in Thailand!

  • Olly

    I would suggest you head north to Chiang Mai. You will struggle to find a beach bungalow type set up that suits your work requirements for anything less than around 20,000 Baht in the tourist areas like Phuket – and even then you would be looking at say Chalong rather than Patong and renting by the month, whilst possible will be considerably more expensive than a 3 month or 6 month contract. Chiang Mai is far more chilled out than Bangkok and Phuket, people do smile more there and are less inclined to rip you off. Its still touristy in some respects but more representative of what you might encounter in Thailand as a whole as opposed to 'tourist-thailand'. If you find somewhere such as 'Smith Residence' (where I have stayed – google it) or the like you're looking at rent in the region of 6-7000 baht on a one month contract for the type of accommodation that you would pay, perhaps, double for in Bangkok; gym (tiny) swimming pool, restaurant etc. Anyway good luck with it. I look forward to seeing your 8 weeks-in video post. I will be genuinely impressed if you can accomplish your mission. :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Hi Olly! Thanks so much for the Chiang Mai sales pitch :) In fact I had already decided just yesterday that I'm going up there. I knew it would be more expensive and less authentic here in the south, and actually wanted to see what it was like to be an English speaking tourist (I almost never have travelled that way before).
    But I'm ready to go to Chiang Mai! You can follow the more detailed aspect of my travel updates through twitter.
    I'm confident that I'll succeed in my mission of “speaking and reading”, but this goal is a very modest one because I knew I'd make little progress this first month, so I'm hoping to do better than I had aimed for, now that I'll be more motivated to speak Thai. Time will tell!

  • Olly

    Ok. Have a good time! – will follow you.

  • Danny

    Hi there sir!!
    I am an an overseas student studying in Thailand and have been here for close to five years. My experiences and impressions have been along the same line as yours, in fact.
    Although I don't “travel” as much and with the same objective as you have been doing, I have had to learn the language officially and in an academic course. I am close to comfortable with it now, but it still troubles me often. And, not to mention the culture thing too.
    Just dropping a comment and wishing you good luck and educational experiences during you being here. Actually I stumbled upon your post through zenhabits.net.
    I am also fascinated by your ingenuity at learning languages.
    I will be following your posts here to learn and share with you more. Please keep sharing your experiences.
    Thanks and good luck sir!!

  • http://www.marblecleaningmiami.com Polishng Marble WEST PALMBEACH

    The glass in the picture on the right. I asked for a non-alcoholic cocktail!I had a great laugh at the container it was served in!A moment of laugh…truly!

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    Thanks for information, I’ll always keep updated here!

  • http://www.moldremediationremoval.com Mold Removal Hawthorn

    Awesome post.

  • Charlie Terrell

    Are you sure those firearms were for sale? I’m from a part of the USA (Oklahoma) where we absolutely LOVE our guns, and have bought several myself. In my experience gun sellers never show a menu. They always show actual inventory! Display cases, rifle racks, tables covered in pistols (all tied down to prevent theft of course) – but never just a menu.

    Where I HAVE seen a menu: Most indoor shooting ranges offer firearms for rent. Don’t panic, you aren’t allowed to remove the guns from the range. The idea is to pay a little money to try a particular type before you pay a fortune (and fill out a stack of paperwork, and wait for the call to the FBI…) to actually buy it. And then discover that you hate its trigger or recoil or whatever, and want to buy a different model, but can’t afford it because you’ve already blown all your money. Better to try before you buy. Almost always the rental session include one box of ammo (more available for extra cost) and a few paper targets.

    Visiting foreigners love this system. Especially the Japanese. They get to shoot things they will never be allowed to see or touch back home. No hassle, no paperwork beyond signing a copy of the safety rules and a liability waiver.

    The only time I’ve ever seen the rental menu presented to random people out on the street was in Honolulu. There the shooting ranges have touts that circulate on the sidewalks, looking for bored Japanese tourists. (Honolulu is fully bilingual English/Japanese by the way. Good place to practice speaking.) My wife and I there on vacation followed one of these touts down the street, pointing at the pictures on his sandwich board and saying “We own one of those, and one of those, and one of those, my cousin has one of those, my other cousin in the highway patrol keeps one of THOSE in his on-duty car…”

    Maybe they do things differently in Thailand. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they were really just offering tourist rentals like in Hawaii.

    Try one of the rental ranges sometime! It’s lots of fun and a great way to overcome fears. Just try to observe the safety rules. The proprietors don’t want you to get hurt either.

    • Charlie Terrell

      One other interesting note: I moved to Colorado recently, so I don’t know much about local indoor ranges. But the range back in Oklahoma City had printed copies of the safety rules in multiple languages just for the tourists – especially Japanese. The world is full of interesting cultural experiences if you keep your eyes open. Even in an otherwise boring place like OKC.