I had less than 48 hours left in Nepal and no plans for the remaining of my time in South East Asia. I only knew two things: I arrived in BKK and I missed the coast.
I read a few helpful blogs recommending various islands in Thailand: Koh Tao if you want to dive, Ko Samet if you want to relax, Ko Phi Phi if you want to party. At the end, one reviewer’s description of Koh Panghan grabbed me: Still one of the most beautiful places in Thailand, despite being known mostly as a party destination.
Originally, I booked five nights in Vagabond, a hostel near the pier. The easy walk was welcomed after 37 hours of traveling that involved two flights, one overnight bus and a ferry ride. I was happy to drink a beer and enjoy the convenience of the island until I figured out my next steps.
Without fail, each destination has surprised me. In Koh Phangan, I was shocked by the fact that after two weeks I managed to befriend only one Thai person. It was all westerners, everywhere. In the hostels, on the streets, at the parties and everywhere in between. My cultural exchange with Thailand was limited to “sawadika” and “kapunka” at the night market.
So I moved to The Nomad House, a hostel not far from Thongsala that felt like home after a day or two. There, I was not only introduced to working Thai families, I also got a different view of the tourism industry: from behind the counter.
I am probably the only person to visit Koh Phangan who did not know about the Full Moon Party. Or the Half Moon, or the Black Moon, or Eden. Twenty year olds getting wasted and wearing neon shirts, painting each others bodies like kindergarteners. I remember thinking: what the fuck? Then right as I was judging them and putting myself up in a pedestal of “I am too good/old/wise for this” a girl who could have been Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell (a.k.a. Serena) asked if I would paint her face. After painting fifteen different faces, I decided to check out the party for myself. Truth be told, I had a blast.
Thailand makes things easy, particularly in places like Koh Phangan. Taxi drivers wait outside your bungalow until you are ready; massage parlors stay open until eleven at night. On the beach, the days are mostly sunny and the nights are always comfortable with reliable 28 degree weather.
But tourism is not always pretty. There is a point in which you crave for an experience that goes beyond rehearsed Thai smiles automatically given to tourists after concluding business. You notice that renting a motorbike might be cheaper than paying for a taxi. On the other hand the industry is backed up by huge hospital bills and clinics that offer commissions to anyone that brings in a new injured client! Each famous party comes with a number of deaths and there is at least one party every day. Strong prescription drugs are available over the counter but the police will charge a 1000 euro fine for one joint. Over time, these trappings of tourism can all be a bit much.
Many places in Thailand are starting to look like Koh Phangan. I was momentarily terrified when I found myself drinking out of a bucket at a Reggae festival outside of Pai. Is this what South East Asia might turn into? Thailand has sixteen million foreign visitors every year. Financially, the country is doing relatively well. It’s no surprise that Myanmar opened their doors to tourists 4 years ago or that Cambodia almost agreed (and changed its mind at the last minute!) to host Kazantip, a famous electronic music festival. I won’t point my finger at people who, just like me, want to experience a world different than where they grew up, but, I do wonder how long it will be until we can no longer experience cultures that are different from our own, even if we want to. Sometimes it seems as if the most affluent cultures continue to take over nations and turn them into distant versions of their own homes with ATMs, German Bakeries and hostelworld accommodations.
I am thankful for the train ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok where I met Simon, an eight year old boy with magnificent English and Vena, an eighty-five year old woman with a magnificent face. Simon shared his knowledge and Vena shared her apples. Together, we survived a mostly pleasurable but certainly exciting fifteen hour long train ride through breathtaking tropical views and a huge fire that started outside of Kuntan and blocked the train tracks for a couple of hours. Despite the delays and the slight morbid thoughts that entered my mind when we stopped in the middle of a tunnel, I enjoyed the ride.
Bangkok was a shock. Again, I’ve never been proven wrong about the reliable twist that comes with expectations. I found Bangkok surprisingly manageable. Based on feedback from friends, I thought I would absolutely hate it. I was ready to show up to a mayhem of smog and sweaty people. I pictured Bangkok Dangerous with drunk tourists on a tight budget. Instead, I found that the city was quite clean and organized; I found that the food was affordable and the public transportation reliable. I thought that Bangkok, as a capital, does a good job at hosting six million people. Yes, you can only find so much joy (or none at all) in going from one mall to the other, but, you can also find interesting bits of the Thai culture exploring the food markets or walking down random alleys. I have to agree with my friend (and fellow blogger) Ian Rohr and say that yes, Bangkok is kind of charmless. But at the same time, I cannot say that I have ever been to a big city that really enamored me with the exception of maybe San Francisco and Istanbul which are both unfair comparisons since the first one is much much smaller and the second, MUCH bigger.
Having said all this, my time in Thailand was spectacular. Even if I don’t think that I managed to fully understand their customs or penetrate their traditions, I met beautiful people. I enjoyed a life that was exciting and fulfilling. So, no complaints. Thank you, Thailand and see you soon, South East Asia.