Thailand's No. 1 catch-phrase sums up the country perfectly. Same same... but different. To be honest, I thought (for some strange reason) that I already knew pretty much what to expect before I arrived, and that Thailand would hold no great surprises for me. Boy, was I wrong! Thailand is in many ways the "same same" as what I imagine other parts of Asia are like (not that I know — I haven't been anywhere else in Asia): it has similar cuisine; similar government and economic problems; similar mass-produced goods and shopping opportunities (thanks to similar illegal sweatshops); similar amusing (but still impressive) command of the English language; and a similar attitude towards Westerners (i.e. "we think you're weird, but you and your money are welcome nonetheless"). And yet, in so many other ways, it's completely unique from all of its neighbours, and its status as the world's top tourist destination is more than deserved. Thailand has been the perfect end to an incredible and epic trip — I'm very glad I stopped by; and I don't regret shirking on the rest of Asia, because doing otherwise would only have robbed me of precious Thai time.
No need to go into details. Suffice it to say that Thai food is second-to-none, and that if you thought your local Thai-riffic chain in suburban Sydney was good, you ain't seen or tasted nothing. If you want the real thing — fresh out of the wok, and at insanely low prices — then you have to come here to get it. Any farang who complains about Thai food while in this country, and who starts ordering pizzas and rump steaks to cure their withdrawal, should be taken out back and shot. I lived on Pad Thai, fly lice and curry for a month, and I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Like most farangs, all I can say is: they call this WINTER in Thailand?! Five weeks of clear blue skies, sizzling temperatures and jacuzzi-like ocean water — it doesn't get any better than this. I understand that Thai weather turns pretty horrific during the wet season, when temperatures soar higher still, and when the monsoonal rains pour down without mercy for months on end. But in the dry season, this place is paradise.
I came here to Thailand in order to have a nice, relaxing end to my trip, before I return home to the hectic muck of "business as usual". And that's exactly what I did. As I anticipated, Thailand is the perfect place to take it easy and to put your feet up, if you're looking for a seriously lazy holiday. No planning or booking needed — just turn up, and you'll find buses to get you around, and guesthouses to check yourself into. No hassle of organising activities yourself — jump on an organised tour, and enjoy the ride. No laundry, cleaning, cooking or dish-washing required — let the locals pamper you to your heart's content, for less than the price of a pack of mouldy instant noodles back home. Oh, and did I mention that if you're planning to lie on a deserted tropical beach for a month, then you need look no further?
Thailand is over-touristed, and that's a fact. If you stick to the main trail, in particular, then you simply will not be able to avoid swarms of fellow farangs, no matter how hard you try. For me, this was no problem: I wasn't looking to really explore the local culture or lifestyle, as such; I was just looking to relax and unwind. Many visitors to Thailand feel the same way. If you do want to discover the real Thailand, however, then I understand that it's simply a matter of leaving the well-worn trail, and of doing your own thing. You won't have to go very far; and before long, you'll find that you're the only Westerner within ten miles.
Thailand's a cheap place to go travelling — but it's not as cheap as it used to be. By Western standards, Thailand is still an absolute bargain, and even the most budget backpackers will still find that they can hang out here quite comfortably. However, I've been travelling in the developing world for most of this year, and I know a "cheap even by developing country standards" place when I see one. And Thailand is not one such place.
Thailand is more expensive than either Peru or Bolivia, and I'd say it's about on par with Mexico or with Chile. From talking to numerous fellow backpackers, I've also been firmly led to understand that it's significantly more expensive than any of its neighbours — compared to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Nepal, Malaysia or Indonesia, it's not particularly good value. This is due to Thailand's strengthening economy, and due to its tourism industry becoming ever more established and ever more upmarket.
Thailand's culture is influenced particularly by its Chinese neighbours to the north, and by its Muslim neighbours to the south. However, these influences are secondary at best; the Thai culture is unique and beautiful, and is remarkably distinct from that of the rest of Asia. I haven't discovered as much of Thai culture as I could have (or should have?) during my time here; but what I have seen, I've been very impressed with. The Buddhist religion dominates all aspects of the Thai lifestyle, and is an inseparable part of everyday life here. The Royal government, the Imperial heritage, and the gorgeous historic architecture are also key components of the tapestry of Thai life. The Thai people themselves really are as friendly and as admirable as their reputation suggests; and the country's slogan "The Land of Smiles" couldn't be more accurate.
I began my trip with a month in Mexico, and I've finished it with (just over) a month in Thailand. These two countries are far more similar than they might at first glance seem, and I'd like to conclude with a quick comparison of them. Thailand and Mexico both have incredibly good weather, gorgeous beaches, amazing (and spicy) food, reasonable value-for-money, a unique and vibrant culture, hospitality towards visitors, and beautiful women (about whom you must be very cautious). I had a ball in both places. Mexico was the perfect introduction to the world of backpacking, and Thailand has been (for this adventure, at least) the perfect conclusion.