Monday, February 9, 2009

The Real Thailand

The other side of the coin to last week’s closer look at Bangkok is the area also known as “the real Thailand” (mega-cities can become frighteningly similar worldwide).

And it’s the rest of Thailand, Tuk-Tuk Talkers, that makes this place uniquely special for the traveler and temporary local.

Mountains with indigenous people groups, tropical forests with the ultra-exotic banana leafs and native animal species, beaches with lots of foreign tourists, islands with more foreign tourists, lowlands for rice growing, vast open fields and expansive land with the occasional village of people that barely even think of themselves as Thai…it’s the diversity, and the outright opposite of the oppressive mega-city, that makes Thailand so appealing and such an irresistible travel destination. This week, our ride on the Tuk-Tuk takes a brief look at all of these various regions of “the land of the free.”

In the north, Chiang Mai is many people’s most favorite place in Thailand due to the overgrown village environment, the variety of outdoor activities including river-rafting and elephants (but so far no river-rafting on elephants), the enjoyment of indoor activities such as Thai cooking and massage classes and an overall laid-back, “we’re not a metropolitan city and we’re proud of it” atmosphere.

In the south, which is one long, Baja-like stretch leading to Malaysia, the beaches and islands dominate with the Andaman Sea on one side and the Gulf of Thailand on the other. Though developing quickly, often without regulations or eco-conscious restraint, these locations provide everything the foreign traveler dreams of from his cubicle in the West. In addition to the islands and beaches, smaller towns provide yet another peak at rural Thailand life, this time of the tropical nature. Nakhon Si Thamarat and Surat Thani are two cities that I’ve experienced first-hand that welcome travelers, but are still authentic Thai experiences.

For a true experience of “far east” culture, heading to Eastern and Northeastern Thailand will reveal wide open fields of rice, an always teetering economical existence based on what the earth yields and small villages of rural “Isan,” a culture of people that goes back as far as the Bronze Age, and includes both Lao and Cambodians in addition to Thai.

Isan has its own language, food, customs and history. Long ago, someone drew up borders that created countries and divided up the Isan people. Same thing happened in the north of Thailand with Burma, Laos, Thailand and China. As an American, I’m not confronted with this reality much, but did you know that people came first, then countries? Taking some time to experience and discover Isan culture would put you in a very elite group of travelers.

All of these places in “the rest of Thailand” are accessible by overnight buses or trains, which generally cost about $18 - $22 for a one-way trip. Short flights are also a possibility and about three times the cost of a train, but still affordable by Western standards.

Together, the regions of Thailand are only growing in their reputation as a traveler’s paradise. Development and other environmental concerns are real, but any industry that helps some overlooked people outside of Bangkok put bread on the table, or in this case, rice on the mat, is good to see.

Why no pictures of those islands and beaches? Well, my experience in Thailand has been a bit different than your’s probably would be. But that, my friends, will be changing this week. Oh yes, that will be changing as I take to the sun, sand and surf of Siam. Come back next week for a glimpse of paradise…

Pictures above:
1. In the heat of Southeast Asia, refreshing rivers in the tropical mountains like this one outside of Nakhon Si Thammarat are an oasis for the foreigner.
2. Life outside the big city has its rewards (here, hammocks in a small village outside of Ubon in the east of Thailand).
3. Elephants, who used to be an invaluable source of work and contribution all over Thailand, have been reduced to entertainment for foreigners and their wild population is dwindling - the Asian Elephant is officially an endangered species.
4. A typical Isan meal of fish, chicken, vegetables and spices that pack a flavorful punch.
5. No better place to be in Thailand for festivals than Chiang Mai - Sean and Paige would agree.

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