Seeing the world, one country at the time

Thailand in a Nutshell

Thailand is The Land of Smiles where you are greeted with a wai and “mai pen rai means never mind”; a Buddhist country blessed with azure waters, white sand beaches and green islands filled with scuba divers, tattooed climbers, pierced backpackers juggling fire at the Full Moon Party and Swedes on their two-week escape from the cold. Since the Eighties Thailand has become the paradise escape of choice for everyone. Looking around, I wonder if there are any Swedes left in Sweden during Christmas. But there is more to Thailand than the sun-soaked beach scene. Thailand is also mountains and national parks around Chiang Mai, Khao Yai and Khao Sok. It is the ancient cities of Sukothai, Ayudhaya and Pimai, the northern hilltribes of Hmong and Karen, the gilded temples by the dozens, and the mighty rivers of the Mekong and Chao Phraya. We could easily have spent a year just traveling around Thailand.

It is also the land of contrasts: the tradition of the Ramakien and the modernity of Bangkok’s chic social scene; pious monks in orange robes and an infamous sex industry fuelled by American GIs on R&R and taken to new heights (or lows) by Japanese and German sex tours; beautiful girls and girlish ladyboys wearing ponytails and makeup and fooling even Thai men with their exaggerated femininity. It is peaceful military coups and bombs set off by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin; lingering effects of a devastating tsunami and affordable, world-class medical service; gems, gold and silver to delight any woman and extreme poverty and injustice toward hilltribe refugees; world-class shopping malls and sprawling local markets: fake anything, from watches and clothes to backpacks, DVDs and purses.

It is a land of superlatives, boasting the most varied and delicious national cuisine in Asia with food carved so intricately it is considered art and the sweetest, juiciest fruits you’ll ever taste. It has a world-renowned service industry exemplified by fabulous spas and resorts and one of the world’s best hotels, the Oriental. It has superb international restaurants.

Murray Head had it right in his song “One night in Bangkok”. A city of six million, it is modern, professional, cosmopolitan and very western. Some would say it has been corrupted by the west, but regardless, it is thriving. Swensen’s, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s vie for real estate with 7-Eleven, Starbucks and Au Bon Pain. Bangkok is the gilded royal palace, Emerald and Reclining Buddhas, noisome long-tail boats along the Chao Phraya, and elephant, crocodile and snake shows. It is Nancy Chandler maps and Groovymaps, street vendors, spirit houses, beggars, endless traffic jams, meditation, Muay Thai (Thai boxing) and massage parlors, with all their connotations. It is Soi Cowboy during the Vietnam War to the live shows at Patpong, to the numbered bar girls of Nana and Japanese karaoke bars. “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble. The bars are temples but the gods ain’t free.”

Thailand is ruled by the benevolent, highly-revered and much-loved King Bhumipol. A video of the King’s public service accompanied by the national anthem introduces any public performance. On Mondays all government employees and half of Bangkok wear yellow in deference to him and on his 79th birthday and 60th coronation anniversary this past year, millions lined the streets with candles, overcome with emotion as they waited for their beloved king to pass by. He is the People’s King and if there is anything that unifies the country, it is their love for him.

But more importantly for me, Thailand is like home, a place of vibrant memories of five years spent growing up there in the Eighties. It is hard for me to describe it objectively when I have seen so much of it, from so many vantage points. Being in Thailand on a budget world trip as a backpacker felt schizophrenic at times. We couldn’t really afford the lifestyle that I had had there as an expat kid, yet most of my friends are from the expat community or the upper echelon of Thai society. Lars and I would come out of our ratty hostel dressed to the nines to join friends at a five star hotel for a business lunch or a dinner party. We didn’t have the traveler experience of Thailand. We didn’t visit much of the country, yet we saw more than most people would ever see as tourists there.

I wrote very few journal entries about Thailand because I hardly felt like we were travelers there. I had already seen all the tourist sights and our main focus was on using it as a base from which to travel around the region, and in which to see friends. We would have a reunion with my parents there, attend Ben Van Roy’s wedding, spend the holidays and enjoy some R&R, so to speak, from the rougher parts of our travels. It was a safe haven for six months. For details on how we spent our time there and with whom, you can read my blow-by-blow account.

Bangkok had served as a good base and it was difficult to leave for another unknown. I had started picking up pieces from my old life as well as putting down new roots; attending my old church, visiting my old school, finding our favorite doctors, dentists, noodle stands, coffee shops, manicurist and hairdressers. We had stopped being backpackers and were starting to call Thailand home. It was time to leave.