Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thailand Positives... Finally

Oh, Firenze, how I miss you...

I remember coming back from Italy in August with a mostly negative outlook on the people of Italy. But as time fades, I look back fondly on some of the Italian people I was lucky enough to know (particularly the family I lived with for my first 5 weeks and a younger couple who ran a night cafĂ© a block off of the Duomo [it’s been so long I forget their names]), and also start coming up with reasons for why I was so down on the culture in the first place.

One of my favorite places to drink in Firenze, on the dam in the middle of the Arno

When I got back to the States, to anybody who asked How was Italy, I would immediately point out how self absorbed and unwelcoming I found the people. But it wasn’t really fair for me to generalize all of the Italians in that way; I really should have been more specific. Since I spent almost all of my summer in Firenze, any judgment I made on Italy was shaped primarily from my experiences with Florentines, not all Italians (hell, I didn’t even make it to the East Coast or south of Rome). So to be clear, I found Florentines to be self-absorbed and unwelcoming.

But even then, can I really blame them for acting that way? For six months of the year, Americans infest Firenze like the seven plagues. And if it isn’t the older retirees who won’t spend money outside of their all inclusive tours while losing all sense of patience for anybody that doesn’t understand English, then it’s the university students who get drunk in their public squares and pee on their monuments. So, understandably, it breads a certain dislike.

This is a famous sit from one of the bridges in Firenze; couples would lock a lock to the bars as a symbol of their everlasting love.

In the end, I found Firenze to be split into two types; 1). The tourist hawkers in the center of town who were overly friendly but only because they could smell the newly minted Euros in your billfold. 2). Everyone else, who wasn’t concerned with tourism and only wanted to be left alone. Once they could tell you were foreign, they just didn’t care for you (and they certainly didn’t want to hear you butcher their language while trying get to know them). While I was living there, it was certainly off-putting and (more importantly) frustrating; while traveling or living abroad, I like meeting new people—especially locals. But in retrospect it makes total sense. I’m definitely willing to give Italy another chance, but definitely not in a big tourist trap type city such as Firenze (although I really enjoyed traveling through the other parts of Tuscany).

There were other aspects I didn’t appreciate about Firenze culture that I suspected could more accurately be placed in a general Italian category: the creepiness of the men, their inability to walk like civilized human beings on the sidewalks (how hard is it not to walk four abreast, or avoid walking straight into someone going the opposite way), the length of their phone conversations when sitting next to you in public places or on public transportation, and the creepiness of the men (seriously, very creepy).

The replica David at the Piazza de Michelangelo in Firenze

But the one thing that can consistently leave a bitter taste in your mouth is a final impression. For me, it was on my flight home from Rome to Detroit, which reminded of the utter indifference Italian people had towards parenting—mainly the way children acted in public spaces and the lack of concern or discipline they showed towards it. There were kids running up and down the aisle-ways the entire flight (I’m not kidding when I say the entire flight; all eight hours), who not only continually bumped into unsuspecting passengers (often waking them up [this happened to me twice]), but amplified their annoying behavior by screeching and yelling non-stop. One of the worst flying experiences I ever had to go through.

The Duomo; or as the tourists call it, 'the domo'

Now that might not sound like a reasonable explanation for why I held such a lasting grudge. And you’re right. It’s not. For the most part, everything I wrote above is fairly irrational. I had an amazing time in Italy, met some fantastic people (foreigners, ex-pats, and Italians alike) who remain friends to this day, got to take advantage of numerous incredible experiences (biking through Tuscany and attending a Fioretina FC match), and I know I’m a much better person for the experience.

In good time, if not already, I’ll look back on Thailand with the same fondness. The similarities are eerie enough: the dishonesty I felt, the impersonal encounters, and the longing to meet real locals (or more accurately, finding myself only visiting places filled with foreigners). Plus the all-important negative lasting impression (if you don't recall from a previous post, our taxi driver tried to charge us three times the normal rate for our ride to the Bangkok airport). But I’ll get over it; in fact I already can’t wait to go back for another crack.

It was raining one day at the beach, so I grabbed my book and enjoyed a refreshing drink

All I have to do to forget my negative memories of Thailand is flip through my pictures. A quick tour though iPhoto has me reminiscing about the amazing people I met and places I saw. First, the people.

On Koh Lanta I met the stangest diversity of people, mainly through the daily beach-volleyball game that started at around 4:30 p.m. everyday. It was a motley group of people that at any time could include Swedes, Fins, Thai (two lady-boys who could have beaten Ice Man and Maverick), Germans (every one of them spoke excellent English), Aussies, Swiss, Italian (this guy named William who spent every winter in Koh Lanta, was a bit of an asshole in only the way an Italian can be , and loved to utter bravo after every good point), and then a lone American (me).

The damn Canadians

There was also a Canadian couple from Vancouver who were spending the winter in Southern Thailand; the girl (Sui) was running her fashion company from her blackberry, while the guy (Chris) was picking up spare jobs leading diving trips to small islands. Visiting them while I happened to cross paths was Chris’ Mother (Paulette) who adored her son beyond belief, had a wicked smoker’s voice, and never had a problem telling you what was on her mind.

I also met a gay English couple (Ian and Oliver) who were writing off the vacation to a business expense as they were “investigating tailors and manufacturers in the market for production of some of their lower end product.” They ran an upscale clothier that specialized in coming to the client for fittings, because, as Oliver put it, “If you asked our clients to go shopping, they wouldn’t even know what you were talking about.”

Then there was a 15-year old Norwegian kid (visiting his father who had a house in Thailand) also named Oliver who spoke perfect English, tried to teach me some Thai (unsuccessfully), was amazed when I told him I didn’t have a PS3 or Xbox360 (he had both that he had paid for from his earnings as a bus boy in Norway [when I was fifteen, I was taking out the garbage once a week for beer money]), and, for a teenager, could handle his Bicardi Breezers like a seasoned pro.

Then there was my Austrian buddy Armin, who I met while traveling from Railay Beach to Koh Phangang. He saw that we shared a destination (in Thailand, the travel companies brand you like cattle with a sticker bearing your end point) and struck up a conversation. Armin ran his own electrician company, had traveled through Mexico and even spent some time in Cuba, spoke fluent English (his favorite phrase to use in exasperation, come onnnnnn) and was a born conversationalist like myself (the content might not always be there, but the spirit is).

My Austrian buddy Armin, carefully reading his Southern Thailand guide.

Not all of my encounters were so satisfying, like the group of South African girls I had drinks with in Railay. I never thought that the white South African accent sounded so similar to Cher from Clueless. I ended up wandering off after one of them used the word colored when referring to a native. There were also the roving bands of Australian guys who were there for the obvious reasons and didn’t give a rat’s ass how obnoxious they were. You could spot these guys a mile away; Chang or Tiger Beer singlet, Quicksilver board shorts (buy Aussie!), flip-flops (or thongs as they call them), and sunnies (sunglasses) covering their eyes as they scan the bar for the cheapest looking prostitute. Okay, that may be a little harsh; I find Australians to be extremely entertaining, it’s just that South East Asia is like their Cozumel.

But even the few annoying foreigners I ran into couldn’t ruin all the incredible friendships I made (and this even isn’t mentioning all the equally amazing people I met in Malaysia). There were the two lovely Irish girls I intruded on at my hostel in Bangkok; they had started traveling in India and were making their way to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia before heading down the Malay Peninsula and ending up in Sydney where they expected to find jobs. There was also the trio of girls from Quebec City who just had that French-Canadian intrigue about them (beautiful, skinny, smoked cigarettes), but instead of being apathetic and disgusted that I was American, these girls were actually cool. I briefly considered following them to Koh Tao, but decided that might be too much.

All in all, I met a ton of cool people. But as you can tell, most of them were foreigners. And from my previous posts, you can probably guess that I won’t have anything positive to say about many Thai people. It is tough, because the only Thai people I encountered were serving me a beer rather than sharing one with me. Of the three places I spent significant time (Koh Lanta, Railay, and Koh Phangang), I met zero Thai tourists or vacationers. With good reason though; it was the absolute peak season and there’s a reason these places are so popular with foreigners.

I’ll make an apt comparison for my American readers. There’s a reason South Carolinians don’t vacation in Hilton Head, because it’s filled with people from Ohio (South Carolinians most hated adversary), it’s more expensive (meaning you get less value for your money), and there are better beaches and golf courses all along the South Carolina coast (Fripp, Kiawah, Edisto, Folley, IOP, Pawley's, and my personal favorite Sullivan’s Island).

God, do I miss that food.

Thai people aren’t going to the spots I went to for the same exact reason; in their eyes it’s a rip off and they know of better places to go anyways. And as a yuppie-white person, it’s my ever lasting dream to find out where those places are so I can one day say, Oh, you went to Koh Samui, I heard that’s… nice. But next time you’re in Thailand, you should check out Koh (insert obscure island here). I heard about it from a Thai friend (name-dropping of an indigenous friend is always a plus) and it was paradise on earth. I was the only foreigner there (this is the killer).

So all of my encounters were made from the type of economical encounters that don’t usually precede friendship. But I’d be remiss in not mentioning Jip, the proprietor of the bungalows I stayed in on Koh Lanta (Blue Moon Bungalows on Long Beach). I was recommended the place from two English girls I had met in Kuala Lumpur, and they actually told me to ask for Jip. Amazing guy and super laid back: never wore a shirt or shoes, never worried about bills (I would often forget to pay for a coke or pad-thai only for him to casually ask me if he remembered correctly the next time I sat down to eat), and helped me out with anything and everything (where to go, what to eat, and how to get to my next destination). I’m also pretty sure he was supposed to charge me for wi-fi and just never did.

Jip and the chef at Blue Moon Bungalows in Koh Lanta (I can't believe Jip was wearing a shirt here)

Then there was the restaurant that was right next to my room (they didn’t have a bungalow for me, but set me up in a room with a fan, giant bed, and no bugs [a rarity for beach-accommodation in Thailand] for a cool $10 a night). I tried to spread the word, but it really was some of the best food I have ever tasted (easily the best pad-thai I ever had). The chef, who was the only other employee there, would let me watch him make the food; everything was fresh, it was all absurdly cheap (no more than $4 for a meal) and he knew exactly how spicy I liked it (most of the food served in Thailand is left for you to spice it yourself, and I tended to go overboard). I’ll just let the pictures do it justice.

There were certainly other aspects of Thai culture I really enjoyed: the buses (cleanest and nicest buses I have ever been on; they had forty-inch flat screens showing movies), the food (Lord, do I miss the food), the beer (Chang is cheap, tasty, and has over 6% alcohol content), the football (they got any and every football match; for example, when I was waiting for my night ferry to Koh Phangang at a hawker center, they were showing the Everton/Scunthrope FA Cup match. I don’t even know if they were showing that in England), and of course the pure beauty (despite there being a ton of trash covering the beach that I stayed on in Koh Phangang, I was still in awe of some of the beaches and islands I got to experience [as I hope the pictures have conveyed to you]).

I should probably have split this post in half, and spent more time talking about the characteristics I mentioned in the paragraph above, but I need to get to my post on Vietnam before I completely forget the place (not to mention the backlog of thoughts I’m accumulating on Georgia since my return). So I think this is a good place to leave Thailand. On a high note. I miss you already.

Oh, Thailand, how I miss you...


  1. Hi Max, I kind of found your blog whilst looking up the mythical old ship hostel in Batumi, also being a TLGer...after reading a bit further I thought your blog was rather good until I got to to this point, you see I'm a South African, and rather sick of the ignorant and rather obnoxious attitude of judging South Africans for using the term 'Coloured'- unlike in the US- where you managed to turn this into 'hate speech' its actually a proud expression of identity used by a large community of South Africans who neither identify themselves as 'white' or 'black'- so it really is unfair to judge a person who isnt American for using this word.

  2. SAguy,

    I'm sorry for any percieved ignorance (if you follow this blog you can probably tell I'm not the smartest person out there) or offending you and anyone else, but that word is still offensive to me. But much like the way Georgians use the 'n-word' in a casual manner, it's not my place to impose American standards of PC on other cultures. But that doesn't mean I still can't cringe when I hear it (which is all I did).

    And I didn't judge those girls soley on that one utterance, it was in fact their behavior in general. But like any meeting, I don't judge all SA just based on that one encounter.

    But thank you for the primer on South African racial terminology (it led to even further education via Google). But I still don't understand if the term is acceptable for non-couloured people to use?