I’m sorry gang, but I’m just not a terribly big fan of Thailand.
Yes, Thailand has my favourite food – spicy, zest-filled freshness bursting with flavour – and arguably some of the best island beaches, lapped by crystal waters teeming with aquatic life. That is certainly true.
And on occasion it holds a natural beauty that is hard to replicate. For instance, you might snap a shot of three young monks looking at a double rainbow, for instance. Pure, travelling gold.
Alas, I’m afraid to say Thailand has been overrun by a scourge that affects nearly every corner of its land: namely, twats.
I’m mostly talking about western sex tourists, of whom I have previously written my dislike. My wish is that Thailand follows the Laos government’s lead, which decreed that foreigners fornicating with local women would be jailed. They must have seen what was happening over the border in Thailand and thought, Not here pal, you’re not raping my country.
Further down the twat scale – much, much further, to be fair – are the harem-wearing hippy-for-a-holiday toffs who swarm night markets haggling for tit-bits mass-produced in a factory by sweat-shop slaves.
What this inflated, self-perpetuating commercial black hole creates is a marketplace of fatuous tat, bearing zero relation to the culture that it claims to represent.
Case in point: those Tai-dye trousers, baggie harem pants, vests carrying local lager logos, or hopelessly self-conscious “Full Moon Party” tank tops? See any Thai people wearing them? No? There’s a reason.
Example 2: every freaking marketplace sells chopsticks, despite the fact Thai people don’t actually use them. Did you not notice you only ever get given a fork and a spoon with your phad se-ew?
But ignorant tourists come asking for chopsticks – cos they’re Asian, in’t they? – so the market responds. Before you know it, everyone’s drowning in wooden, mono-pronged food-manipulators.
What I’m getting at is, despite the fact Thailand was the only country in south-east Asia to repel western colonisation, it nevertheless suffers from a gaping lack of authenticity. It feels more like a theme park most of the time, garish and contrived. Its national dish is Chinese for heaven’s sake.
So, rather than writing a post each for Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai and Bangkok, each article more sullen than the last, I’ll just write this one, highlighting the best bits and bringing my travelling catalogue to an abrupt end.
We were meeting Swarana’s brother in Chiang Mai, which in itself was a treat. I’m not just obliged to say that because we’ll soon be family; he is genuinely a very funny, relaxed chap, with – dare I say it – a very similar disposition to my own.
The three of us explored the city by bicycle, stopping in at temples and hidden bars in the old town, and eating the best gyoza outside of Japan (one of the best dishes I had in Thailand and it’s Japanese…)
But stand-out for us was the Elephant Nature Park. Rather than riding elephants, we opted to stand near them instead. This may sound disappointing in comparison, right?
At the Elephant Nature Park, you get to see these magnificent creatures’ personalities. You feed them; wash them in the river; and stroke them as they tear bamboo branches apart by twisting them with their trunks, before shovelling them into their mouths.
You’ll see them charge about, interact with each other, show affection for members of their family, or shield the cubs from outsiders. You may even see them get pissed off – they thump their trunks against the ground to warn those nearby that it is wary of your presence and willing to smash you to flattened smithereens.
It sounds like slapping a long, loose piece of plastic pipe with a leather handbag. And to hear them roar! Suddenly the valley feels like something out of Jurassic Park.
Quieter, nicer and with fewer taxi girls and obese western perverts, Chiang Rai was my favourite of the northern-Thailand tourist troika. It was a hit with me as soon as we found the ground outside our hotel teeming with tokay geckos.
However, it was a brief stopover solely to visit the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun.
Designed by unhinged artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the contemporary temple was opened to the public in 1997 and is still under construction today.
I first found out about it from a tweet by medical historian Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, and, as it relates somewhat to a story I’ve been writing, I had to go see it for myself.
But first: a man-sized robot with a Predator-style shoulder-mounted laser-gun sits on a bench, welcoming sci-fi selfie-takers into its embrace.
Meanwhile, disembodied heads with plants growing down from their jaws hang from the trees, including effigies of several movie icons like Freddy Krueger, Pinhead, Batman, Hellboy and, oddly, Iron Man (considering it’s just a helmet).
(I’m kicking myself because I just found out there’s a half-buried Predator showing off his mandibles near the entrance, and I completely missed it. Gutted.)
Anyway, the temple itself is an elaborate homage to the Buddhist concept of rebirth and the cycle of life and death. A small bridge leads over a sea of hands, all reaching up from some over-crowded after-life.
But the hand-pool is encircled by yet more limbs: a mangled mulch of feet, fingers and frayed faces, eyes torn asunder from nose and mouth.
Inside the temple, the colourful murels depict the transition of people’s lives from birth, through the chaos of the world we’ve made for ourselves, over the tendrils of time towards Buddha and enlightenment, before death returns your soul to the beginning. It’s like life-laps.
To depict our chaotic existence, Mr Kositpipat has opted to use icons of our times, like Neo from the Matrix movies, Attack of the Clones starfighters and Pokemon. It’s all deeply religious, you understand.
Back outside, past the world’s most beautiful lavatory, beyond the cardboard cutouts of the artist himself, one can view the museum of Kositpipat’s other works.
It is almost immediately clear that this man thinks extremely highly of himself. There are almost as many effigies of Kositpipat in his museum as there are of Ho Chi Minh in his.
That’s a lot.
It’s pronounced with a B; as in, “The place is occupied Pai more hippy wannabes than the Salisbury plains”; or “It’s a great place to Pai some ugly baggy trousers”; or even “We saw the Benidorm nightlife and just politely said good-Pai!”
I’m being mean – it’s not completely awful, it just doesn’t have a lot of soul left. It’s all reggae bars and tourist discos and bucket cocktails and everything wrong with Haad Rin without the saving grace of a beach.
You can hire a scooter and explore the countryside around the town, which is nice, but everyone does the same thing. Waterfall -> Canyon -> Japanese Bridge -> Thom’s Elephant Enslavement Camp.
I don’t know, I think I was getting increasingly jaded by this point. I liked the canyon, and our brief but freezing swim in the waterfall with freakishly toned 20-something Scandinavians frolicking under the cascade (at least there were no Koreans there blazing brostep from base-spewing speakers – which was a plus).
By the time we got back to Bangkok I was heading for full-blown curmudgeon mode.
We’d booked a fancy hotel room for our stay in Bangkok in the Sukhumvit district, where we had a swimming pool and a fridge in our room that stayed on even when you went out for the day.
But really, we didn’t do much. We found a cool bar called Cheap Charlie’s; it’s an old lean-to elaborately decorated with wooden carvings, old toys, pirate memorabilia and a running train set, under which you’re served reasonably priced drinks. It’s… good.
We went to Khao San Road once. It was really loud. We didn’t stay there long.
We did, however, meet up with an old friend of Swarana’s, an Iranian teacher called Saaed working in Bangkok with his fiancée. He was due to move back to the UK within a fortnight and was trying to get through a stubbornly large bottle of gin. We reluctantly helped.
We didn’t go and see any temples, or go on any tours, or cycle round the lung-shaped Prapradaeng district, or see any old prostitutes turn their trade to table tennis. Perhaps we missed out.
It was a winding-down time. We just got ready to go home, buying a few things for friends and family, and mentally preparing ourselves for the end of a phenomenal six months.
Yes, Thailand wasn’t my favourite, but it did have Koh Lipe and Krabi and Koh Libong to remind me of how excellent some of it really is. And even with the cloud of returning home hovering over our heads, there was extraordinary beauty to behold and incredible food to feast upon.
Maybe I’m just grumpy, seeing as I’m writing this from London, and it’s raining outside.
Either way, we said farewell to the 7/11s and the phad Thais and the sawadee kaps and the ubiquitous lady-boys, and – with a sigh – we boarded our last plane home.
Think I’m being too harsh? Let me know in the comments.
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