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My Thailand experience

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Travel update – no language tips in this (long) post

My experience in Thailand has ended and I'm already back in Europe (in Paris for the weekend, Ireland for the next 3 weeks and then starting the next 3-month mission). I've learned quite a lot in terms of general life lessons, as well as for learning languages of course, but first I'll give a travel summary to continue from my first impressions.

Ko Phi Phi – my favourite island

Just after my last travel update (in Phuket), I made my way to Ko Phi Phi (pronounced gaw pee-pee; yes, romanisation in Thai is very misleading). I stayed for about a week, and it was by far the best week of my entire Thailand experience!

Phi Phi is a magnet for young (mostly beautiful young Swedish) party seekers, and those with dreams of finding their Beach. In fact, the Leonardi DiCaprio movie The Beach was filmed in an adjacent island.

However, coming here to find an unspoilt paradise would leave you disappointed; the island is extremely touristy and chaotic, and quite expensive for Thailand. Although I was immediately struck by how clear the water was when getting off the ferry, I wouldn't call what I had seen to be the most beautiful destination.

I actually did want to just party for a week and I got that and more! Open-access areas on the beach have music and a sandy dancefloor, and there are amazing fire shows; a fire skip-rope, fire limbo and fire juggling. Anyone can participate, and most do! I'd love to say how brave I was, but to be honest I only did the fire limbo when it was at the highest level and skipped the rope when the flames were least strong. Quite a few people got burnt!

What made this destination such a great party for me was how friendly the other tourists were there. It's amazing, but even the attitude of other travellers changes between the islands (see below). I had absolutely no problem making some cool new friends; for weeks afterwards I would be elsewhere in Thailand and would be recognised by someone I had met in Phi Phi (although, I have ways of making myself easily recognisable that those who've been out with me know about!)

Parties (and seeing so many beautiful Swedish girls) aside, the main reason this island gave me the highest quality experience for this trip was actually because of people I had met online and ended up spending most of my time with there – fellow bloggers and “tweeps” Dan Andrews, Tom, Sean Ogle and his friend Ryan, as well as Baker and his family. They hugely enriched my entire Thailand experience; I had some amazing conversations, learned a lot from them, and finally got to hang out with some other “location independent” workers, which is something we all had in common. Most people I tend to hang out with in my travels usually wouldn't even know what twitter is, let alone be as active online as my Phi Phi friends are.

I made sure that we worked together on my video and I was video interviewed by both Sean and Baker (I'll link to those videos when they become available). Sean wrote an interesting post about how Phi Phi is where the productive go to die (i.e. getting any work done there is quite hard!) and I've been lucky to have been able to spend more time with him in Bangkok in my final weeks. I'll otherwise be keeping in touch with that group until we meet again!

The inexperienced tourist

After Phi Phi, things kind of went downhill for the rest of my Thailand travels before I decided to settle in Bangkok. As initially stated, I was trying out being an English speaking tourist while in Thailand.

There are advantages to that style of travel, and it may be preferable for some people, but it really is not for me. Don't get me wrong, I can be viewed as just as much of a tourist even when living in a city for several months and speaking its language, but pure-English-speaking tourism is not something I've ever experienced outside of countries that don't have English as an official language. For my own curiosity and for the purposes of giving a rounded view on this blog (as I'll be writing here for quite a while!), I really wanted to experience the other point-of-view.

This meant that learning Thai was purposely given the backseat and very little time commitment (once again, I had already said I'd be doing this when announcing the mission; some people seem to have misunderstood that I was aiming for fluency in Thai). I don't regret this decision as I had wanted a new experience; even if it was bound to lead to some disappointment. I also think that a break from intensive language immersion and allowing myself to get to know so many English speaking travellers has been nice, especially since I will be speaking almost no English for the entire rest of the year starting in a few weeks time.

I have genuinely learned some important things from this experience.

Full Moon bucket-drinking session?

I went to Samui and based myself there for about a week surrounding the Full Moon party; one of the most famous parties in the world and on so many people's lists of things to do before they die. To be totally honest, I was quite disappointed.

It didn't seem to have anything special in it, and I wonder if people enjoy it so much simply because of the number of buckets of alcohol (yes, alcohol is served in buckets in Thailand) that they've consumed. As a non-drinker I have a different perspective on such things, and I never shut up about how amazing Burning Man or the Brazilian Carnival or other large festivals or events are, even though there is clearly a lot of drinking going on in such events too.

But the Full Moon party was just some beach party that happened to have a lot of people. The day I was there had the brightest moon of the year (due to its elliptical orbit), but you would barely have noticed it because of all of the lights coming from the bars and nightclubs. I hate to sound like a nostalgic traditionalist (I like my cities and development more than anyone), but I imagine that it would have been an extremely different and very special event in its early years.

For example, this time last year I was on a secluded beach in India with no artificial lights during a full moon and it was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights that I have ever seen in my life. The whole beach was spectacularly lit up in an eery black-and-white way from the light of the moon and seeing my shadow cast in such contrast with no sun or artificial lights was something I had never experienced before. The potential to enjoy yourself with friends in such a set-up is amazing. The Phangan-based party could be just as well called the monthly beach drinking session in my opinion.

Also, unlike in Phi Phi, a lot of the tourists at the FMP are on an extremely brief (between one weekend and one week, for example) trip to Thailand specifically for the party. It was quite hard for me to make friends with those crowds and the people I already knew at the party were extremely difficult to find in the chaos. I think if you are a big drinker or go with a group of people, you would enjoy yourself much more than I did, but you could have a beach party anywhere; to me, the FMP was pure quantity rather than quality.

After that I had caught a bug and was bedridden for several days in Ao nang. Hopping between major tourist destinations was getting old and I had put almost no work at all into learning Thai, so it was time to go north. I spent a few days in Chiang Mai and found the pace of the city and university population to be a reminder of things I liked in other cities that I've lived in (Valencia/Salamanca in Spain and Toulouse in France for example).

However northern Thai is extremely different (as far as I could gather, a much greater dialect difference than what I've come across in European language dialects), so the little I had learned from the reading part of the experiment would have been rendered almost useless, and any formal indications (in books etc.) on speaking Thai would have been focused on Bangkok's dialect. So I decided to go back there for my final weeks.


It's ironic that I came back to Bangkok for its own version of Thai because I ended up just spending most of my time indoors and didn't even begin speaking or practising it until my final weekend. Once again, looking at my finances grimly reminded me that I needed to do another 3-week stint of double-time work 7 days a week. Such a work commitment has actually prematurely ended one of my previous missions, but luckily what I was aiming for in Thai was much simpler and I'm happy with what I achieved in the very little time that I put into it.

As you can imagine, I am getting quite sick of being locked in my room for such long stretches every few months. Despite enjoying my work, that experience is still quite stressful and extremely antisocial. I'll be discussing an idea with you soon to hopefully get me out of that pattern.

There was one extra thing to make my Bangkok experience even less authentic! As I wanted to find an apartment as soon as possible (I had been living in hotels for my entire stay up to then; interestingly, that didn't contribute to financial problems since it's so cheap in Thailand), I chose the first place I saw that was modern, efficient for working in, right by a skytrain stop and near lots of restaurants. The flat itself was perfect for my purposes but what I didn't notice when taking it was that it was a 2 minute walk from… (those who know Bangkok, get ready to do a facepalm) Nana plaza . One of the world's most famous red-light districts.

So every time I went out just for a bite to eat, I'd get pestured by dozens of (both female and she-male) prostitutes. Seeing how many men were in Thailand for sex tourism was infuriating, and getting grabbed and propositioned when walking down the street was something that I just had to learn to ignore. Not quite the impression of Thailand I was hoping to leave with!! This is of course, entirely my own fault for not being better organised; I apologise to all Thais and to locals living here; I will come back another time to get a real perspective on Thai culture, I promise!! I will definitely not be claiming that I “know Thailand” after this superficial experience.

In the few breaks that I did take from work, I got to spend more time with some more location independent workers. Bloggers seem to like doing video interviews, since I had been invited for several other ones, including with Cody McKibben and David Walsh (that I'll also include in a video summary post), both amazing individuals that I've learned so much from in our brief chats!

Bangkok seems to be some kind of centre of gravity for so many interesting people, and despite my own lack of congruence with the English-speaking travellers' world, I got to appreciate a whole new different type of culture through them. English speaking expats in themselves have something special that they share, which can't easily be associated with the country that they come from. There's an anglophone culture in Bangkok that simply can't be overlooked, and I can understand why so many people are flocking here to experience it.

So having said all of that, this 2-month stay in Thailand has been an eye-opening and extremely different experience for me. I've had my ups and downs, and I have learned way more than I was expecting to, and am still processing and reflecting on my short but intense visit there.

Most important of all, I did genuinely make some excellent friends. On my last full day, I went (artificial) wakeboarding with the guys and had a great time with them. I will miss them a lot, but I'm still a nomad at heart, so it was time to move on. It feels good to be back in Europe where things make a little bit more sense to me 😛

In the next post, I'll summarise the language part of my Thai mission, especially detailing mistakes that I've made, and my overall impressions of “dipping my toes” in my first Asian language.

Once I have done that, I would like to spend the next few weeks talking about something that a lot of my readers have shown an interest in, before I begin my first intensive language mission of 2010. I will be in Ireland for St. Patrick's day for the first time in years, and the lead up to this is what is known as seachtain na Gaeilge over a week to celebrate the Irish language and culture. To attempt to contribute to this, I would like to share ways of learning more about the Irish language (and culture) through this blog (between some posts with more general language and other tips), as well as making one or more videos about the topic.

Hopefully you'll enjoy that!! In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on what I've written here. Please note that this post is just me thinking aloud about my Thai experience, so try not to take offense at anything I've said here as it's just my opinion, nothing more. 🙂

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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