Thursday, October 8, 2015

Holiday in Thailand

I've just got back from a holiday in Thailand.

Last August I was wondering where to go for China's one week national holiday in October. I considered going to visit a friend in Bangladesh, but he couldn't guarantee he would be there. I considered an extremely adventurous Central Asian trip spanning China's Xinjiang province and Kyrgyzstan, but then I realized that we would have to spend most of the holiday traveling through the deserts and steppes on long-distance buses. Finally I looked at options for South-East Asia, and came across some cheap tickets to Bangkok.

Thailand is probably Asia's most popular tourist destination, but for various reasons, which are quite unconnected to the country itself, I had never been particularly interested in going there. I've never been a fan of holidaying in "tropical paradises", and in fact I have no habit of going to the beach at all. I don't swim very well, and lying on a deckchair relaxing all day is hardly my idea of a holiday well-spent. I like my holidays to contain a certain amount of excitement and adventure, and I try to avoid tourist hotspots, which Thailand clearly is.

The more I looked into it however, the more the idea of going to Thailand grew on me. Away from the notorious tourist haunts like Pattaya and Pukhet, Thailand is actually host to one of Asia's most fascinating cultures. What's more it's warm, relaxed and easy to get around (none of which would have been true of Kyrgyzstan).

At last I snapped up the tickets for Bangkok, and set off on the 28th of September with my girlfriend, a few days before China's national holiday actually begins. Our journey started off in Macau, where we changed planes and spent a night. Macau was the last constituent part of China which I hadn't yet been to (Hong Kong and the Mainland being the other two), so it was good to go there. The city is a mixture of glitzy casinos and old cobbled streets from the Portuguese era. What is striking is the Portuguese writing still to be seen all over the place, even though I doubt many people speak much Portuguese.

We then flew on to Bangkok. As I took the train into the city, what struck me most were the amazingly colorful and beautiful Thai temples sticking out from the grim buildings around them. Thai Buddhist temples truly are some of the most cheerful and attractive religious buildings out there. Bangkok definitely came across as more modern and prosperous than Hanoi, the only other South-East Asian capital I have visited up to now.

Central Bangkok

We stayed in a nice hotel in the new city centre, and in the evening we took the boat down the river to the historic centre of Rattanakosin. While wondering around I noticed a roadside stall selling bags of fried grasshoppers and assorted bugs, so I decided to try them. They were crispy, but pretty tasteless. After a while we made our way to Kao San Road, Bangkok's notorious backpacker haunt. I immediately felt relieved I hadn't chosen to stay there, as it is messy, noisy and entirely removed from the local culture.

Bugs on sale as a snack in Rattanakosin

Next morning we visited Bangkok's Great Palace, the palace where the kings of Thailand resided from 1792 until 1925. It turned out to be truly one of the most amazing royal palaces I have ever seen. It was both majestic and tantalizingly exotic, the walls adorned with murals showing scenes from the Hindu epic Ramayana, in which an army of monkeys fights against one of demons. The grounds were packed with tourists, about 80% of whom were Chinese. When you travel to any of the countries surrounding China, especially during a Chinese public holiday, the sites are almost as packed with Chinese visitors as the Forbidden City would be. Luckily I didn't witness any of the bad behaviour which has made Chinese tourists in Thailand sadly famous.

A man meditating in his store in Bangkok

After that we embarked on the eight hour journey to Kho Chang (Elephant Island), an island in the far east of Thailand, near the border with Cambodia. Although it has now become a holiday destination, it is not nearly as packed with people as some of the more famous islands in Thailand's South. We stayed at a fancy resort on the island's coast, which only cost about a third of what it might have done in China. The island is quite large and ringed with little settlements, all of which are touristy. Most of the tourists seemed to be either Chinese or Russian, interspersed with some Western backpackers.

The island of Koh Chang as seen from the boat approaching it

We spent a lazy first day on a tropical beach. Even though I don't usually go to the beach, I can see why people travel thousands of miles to relax on beaches like these. It certainly beats Brighton or Qingdao. On our second day we went on a snorkeling tour. I had never been snorkeling before, and seeing all the tropical fish and coral up close was quite amazing. Our third day on the island it started to pour with rain.

Although October is the tail end of the rainy season in Thailand, most days you only get brief tropical downpours, after which the sun comes out again. This time however it just poured and poured for about two days straight, with only brief interruptions. The locals seem to just ignore the rain, and ride around on their scooters even during torrential downpours. After spending most of the day holed up in our room, we decided to do the same: we donned our raincoats and rode our rented scooter around the island anyway. The hot weather meant that getting soaked wasn't too bad. When the rain got really heavy we would quickly stop and dash into a restaurant for cover.

A Koh Chang beach
Our last day on the island we did a classic tourist in Thailand activity, in other words riding on the back of an elephant. We booked a tour at one of the local elephant parks, and then we rode on the back of a huge Asian elephant for about an hour, which was fun in spite of the rain. Apparently these highly intelligent animals could be found as far as Turkey and Shandong province in China only a hundred years ago, but now their habitat has been drastically reduced. If I had read articles like this one before going to Thailand, I might have thought twice about the ethical implications of elephant riding. Then again, the elephants at the camp which organized our ride seemed pretty cheerful and well looked after, but still what would I know?

  A trainer riding an elephant on Koh Chang

That afternoon we left the island and took the ship back to the Thai mainland. After spending a few days on Koh Chang I totally understand why people will spend weeks wiling away their time on Thailand's coast and islands. It's cheap, the locals are always friendly and helpful, the food is good, and you can just kick back and relax. There are probably few countries which can match Thailand in these terms. There is certainly nowhere in China, including China's own tropical island of Hainan, which can even begin to compare.

After leaving Koh Chang we decided to stop at a town called Chanthaburi on the way back to Bangkok. Although it is mentioned in guidebooks and has a couple of attractions, the town is by no means a tourist destination, so it gave us a chance to see something of the real Thailand. We stayed at a cheap local hotel which turned out to be a bit like a low-end Chinese hotel you might find next to a train station. It was extremely scruffy, and there was no hot water in the showers (in tropical countries this is often considered to be a luxury). To be fair, a double room only cost the equivalent of 5 euros a night.

Chanthaburi has the distinction of being an important center for the trade of precious gems. Bizarrely there is a small community of Africans living there, mostly involved in the gem trade. We walked down one street which was entirely filled with African men hanging around chatting. The town looked rather similar to a Chinese town of the same size, with similarly run down blocks of flats. On the other hand it seemed a lot more empty and sleepy then a Chinese town would ever be. We could find virtually no restaurants, only street-stalls, and most of the shops seemed to be shuttered even though it was a Monday. All the same, the people were almost all cheerful and helpful in the typical Thai way.

A monk walking in front of a temple in Chanthaburi

Few people spoke any English, so I had a chance to try out my phrasebook Thai. Learning Thai is basically like learning Chinese, but with a phonetic alphabet replacing the characters. The language has five tones, and the way in which sentences are strung together is very much similar to Chinese. In fact, I can't help thinking that the linguists who classify Chinese and Thai (as well as Vietnamese) as belonging to entirely unrelated language families are clearly mistaken. The similarities between these languages, all of which use tonal systems and have similar ways of constructing the phrase, are too striking to be coincidental, and probably point to a common origin at some earlier stage.

In any case we rented a scooter (this seems to be the simplest way to get around in most of Thailand, with private taxis very rare), and went to visit a waterfall just outside the town. Next to the waterfall there was a path which ran through a thick tropical forest, replete with hanging lianas which luckily never turned out to be poisonous snakes. After going back to the town, we visited the biggest local temple, in which there was a huge golden statue of a reclining Buddha. Thailand's profound popular devotion to Buddhism is one of the country's most striking aspects. There are shrines everywhere, and most passers-by will automatically put their palms together in a Wai gesture when they pass one. Saffron robed monks can be seen on every corner. In Chanthaburi even a local government building displayed quotations from the Buddha in both Thai and English on its walls.

While my old pre-China self would have rejected all this piousness as superstition and as a way of controlling the minds of the downtrodden, my new post-China self  sees it more as an admirable preservation of tradition and as a way of providing people with a set of values which go beyond mere materialism. It is funny how China can change your perspective on things. Of course I know very little about Thai society, and how Buddhism ties in to the personality cult of the king and the social injustice which certainly exists in the country. Perhaps if I lived in Thailand for a while and spoke the language, my perspective might change yet again. Certainly South-East Asian Buddhists can also be religiously intolerant, as one can see in neighbouring Burma today.

That night we took a five-hour bus ride back to Bangkok, and the next morning we got on a plane headed back to China. After this first taste of Thailand, I can't wait to get the chance to go back and see more of the country. Then again, neighbouring Cambodia and Laos are also enticing destinations. And I still want to see Kyrgyzstan one of these days. 

Posters like this one, in English and Chinese, are quite common in Thai temples


Agness Walewinder said...

I really miss Thailand these days, but I am returning there in January for a month! I simply can't wait to try all of these healthy dishes and wake up in the beach!! :) Your experience sounds like mine back in 2013 :).

Ji Xiang said...

@Agness: thanks for your comment. Who doesn't want to go back to Thailand? But did you actually sleep on the beach?

Anonymous said...

A Thai stumbled upon your blog.

I live in Chiang Mai. If you haven't been here, please take this reply as an invitation. Some say it's different from BKK or the south.

If you don't like beaches (me too. I'm not a "party-goer" (which ususally stay around the beach)), try other provinces. Those in the north, west, east, or northeast might be suited you. If you want to visit CM but don't like tourists, try Nan, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, Payao. You can search the net for the info. They have the same atmosphere as CM does but less crowd. There are some advangerous things to do, still laid back cities.

Honestly, sometime don't expect much from the West. You live in China so I guess you are familiar with what the West view CN and Cginese, and what really happen. Same here. I would give some example. Just one. There are more (actually I should say tons) of them. They ususally blame Thai don't giving some hill tribe nationality. Fact:they don't know that according to Thai law, nationality giving by blood, not by birthplace.

They trust their Western fellows without evidence. How can they trust these savage locals? See this

Sneaky kids accused of robbing tourist in Thailand during this picture

Thai kids accused of stealing watch are off the hook

“My children are not pickpockets” - father of Thai ‘child thieves’ speaks out

It turned out that the tourists forgot they put their watch in their bags. Yet they make no apologize. Months passed before some news paper said they "sorry" for the wrong news (and of cause it would not show on their news) At that time the name of the family were already damage due to their actions.

Hmong: Newspapers Apologise after Falsely Accusing Two Girls of Theft

(Really wish you guys see how he and his family cried on TV. Then again, you might not feel anything. After all it's just a misunderstanding and a stupid hill tribe family.)

They claim about the elephants. Oh well. What about Shamu and baby Shamu? Putting a killer whales in a tank to perform for people. Dolpin show? Making a dog walking on 2 hind legs and post it on youtube. May I ask do dog born to walk on their hind legs. Or why do they ride hourses? If the animal were borned to be ride? Why do they have to put spur and poked on these animals? Do they like it?

Tons of these hypocrite acts. They say that what others do is wrong. But they would not say anything about what they do. White superior.

Enough said.

Chantaburi is famous for
1. Jewelry. Anyway I would not reccomend you to buy it. This business need some expertized skill.
2. Fruits. There are gardens around the province and you can buy any fruits from durian, mangosteen, mango, rambutan, etc. with cheap prices.

Not all the act in Buddhism is connected to superstitious. In fact the Buddha teaching has nothing to do with them. Buddhism in TH (and in other coutries including CN) is mixed with local beliefs. In case of Thailand, animalism. True teaching of the Buddha has nothing to do with it. More of agnostic. I myself do some respect to the statue as a sign of respect to life in out dimension or other dimension (if it so). The same way I respect people or any living. But I never believe any deity (if they exist) could help me. It's me and my act that creat my karma, which in turn creat my destiny. Nobody can help me except myself.

Thailand is not different from any places. I mean we have good and bad things, also good and bad people. Hope you see the firt ones wherever you go.

Sorry for any typo. I do them all the time no matter which language I type. Be our guest again anytime. You are always welcome.

Ji Xiang said...

Hello, anonymous Thai!

First of all thanks for the invitation, I've never been to Chiang Mai or Northern Thailand, but it would be nice to go there some day. I would certainly like to visit your fascinating country again.

It seems you took some offence at my assertion that elephant riding should be avoided because the elephants are mistreated. Honestly I don't think your comparison with riding horses really holds, since it is alleged that the elephants are subjected to torturous training when they are young, and that isn't the case with horses. In any case, I am certainly not denying that animals get mistreated in the West too, but does it strike you that Western (what you call "white") animal-rights activists also complain about the mistreatment of animals within their own societies with equal passion? I don't think there's any hypocrisy involved, if anything I think people in Thailand and most Asian countries are far too sensitive about criticism of their countries coming from Westerners.

By the way, I didn't really know about Thailand's denying of the hill tribes' citizenship, but thanks for bringing it to my attention. If Thailand grants nationality by blood, not birthplace, then it is Thailand that should change this backward policy. The hill-tribes have been living in Thailand for centuries, why would you deny them citizenship? If Western activists point this out, the problem isn't their ignorance, but Thailand's backward policies.

When it comes to Buddhism, I respect this religion, in spite of not necessarily sharing its beliefs. At the very least, it would seem to be a more pleasant belief-system than most of the competition. If you believe in karma good for you, I wish I could believe it too. By the way, the belief is called "animism", not "animalism" (which would be the worshipping of animals).