You Know You’re in Thailand When…
…you suddenly understand why nobody’s wearing sleeves.
Thailand is humid. Bangkok is one of the most humid cities in the world, averaging roughly 80% relative humidity year round, so no matter what you’re used to, you’re gonna be drenched shortly after taking that first gulp of hot air outside the airport.
But it’s part of the culture. When you always feel like you kind of need to take a shower, it doesn’t make sense to wear your Sunday best. Once you get into the city, you’ll pick up one of those light and breezy tanks you’re seeing everywhere, and throw it on before heading out.
And you may hate every stereotype of the Thailand backpacker on Khao San Road, but there’s something completely relaxing about finally being comfortable in the wet heat. Something that makes you want to grab a cheap beer from a sidewalk table, sit down for a bit, and just enjoy being there.
…you find yourself haggling over the equivalent of 30 cents.
When you first get to Thailand, you won’t know exactly how much a baht is worth. You got 32 of the little guys for your big American dollar, and they’re burning a hole in your pocket. But it’s not until you decide to say no to that 500-baht pair of sunglasses, not until the first time they snap their fingers at your back and say, “Okay okay 400 for you!” that the world opens up.
Haggling is a big deal in Thailand. You can halve the price of just about everything you see if you play your cards right. After spending a few weeks getting used to this important social interaction, it becomes a fact of life you’ll actively embrace, even push its limits. On my last day in the country, I found a bracelet I really liked — one of those with some lewd text written in broken English. I successfully haggled the price down to 90 baht, but I was adamant about not paying a baht above 75. I left empty handed.
For a second, I felt proud that I’d stuck to my guns. Then I realized, with no small amount of puzzled shame, that I’d turned away something I wanted over the principle of less than a dollar. Oops.
…you get swept up in a citywide water war.
Every April 13-15, Thailand comes alive for Songkran — the celebration of the new year. And while Americans may treat December 31 with a giant ball dropping down a skyscraper, Thais do it with a little more pizzazz. Normally quiet cities like Chiang Mai erupt into three-day water wars, where everybody’s a participant, willing or not, and nothing is off limits.
Songkran is easy to underestimate. It’s Chiang Mai, where there are more temples than restaurants, and you may think the festivities are sequestered in a specific part of the city. You may think, since you’re just a visitor, you’ll be ignored. You may think it’s safe to wear white clothing, or use your phone in public, or appear in public at all.
And then you’ll sit down to breakfast at a cute little café you found in the Old City, and you’ll bring the fork up to your mouth, and right in that moment a truck will drive by and a smiling Thai boy, no more than 10, will be sitting in the back, and you’ll make quick eye contact right before his squirt gun blasts that fork straight out of your hand, and his friend dumps a bucket of water all over you for good measure.
Then you’ll get it. C’est la Songkran.
…you find it hard to focus on the road while flying through the mountains on a motorbike.
I drove a motorcycle for the first time in Thailand. And maybe I was being cocky, flying around the turns of the northern mountain roads like I was Evel Knievel himself. Maybe I was just distracted by the cliff views in front of me. But then I felt myself begin to fishtail, and before I knew it I’d wiped out, just barely avoiding going over said cliff. As I pulled myself to my feet, thanking every deity I could name that I was still alive, I watched as my best friend riding behind me threw himself to the asphalt too.
It’s not just visitors, though you’ll see plenty of farangs with bandages all over their bodies. Thailand has roughly 20 million registered motorbikes (nearly 1 for every 3 people). It’s more than the cheap price tag that makes them attractive. When you’re in a car, you’re separated from the outside world, stuck in a box with your field of view reduced to the immediate road. With all the beautiful scenery to be found, and all the winding roads to enjoy, why would you want to do that to yourself?
So if you’re on a motorbike, wear a helmet. It’s all too easy to get sucked into the moment when you’re having that much fun.
…you befriend an elephant.
Elephants are big. It may seem like an obvious statement, but pictures don’t really prepare you for the giant roiling bodies standing in front of you, exuding strength, with eyes that show a deep intelligence. The first time one plucks a banana from your hand, wrapping your fingers with its trunk and squeezing them with the bare minimum of its power, you’ll have a sudden understanding of Lenny’s situation from Of Mice and Men. I knew these creatures were strong, but wow.
Elephant camps are one of the most popular attractions in Thailand. But until you actually arrive and see them for yourself, it’s easy to think of them as just part of the scenery. Getting up close and personal with a family of elephants, however, changes things. You see the way they affectionately pat each with their trunks. You see the way the babies excitedly run up to you, only to shy away at the last second and hide behind their mothers’ tails. These aren’t scenery. These are real, powerful creatures that could crush you without a thought.
But they don’t. Because there’s personality behind those eyes. Once you’re in Thailand and you encounter them for yourself, you’re also filled with a desire to see these elephants treated well. You want to volunteer at a sanctuary. You want to protect them, help them enjoy a long and natural life. Elephants could kill you if they wanted, but since they’ve instead decided (and with that intelligence, it must be a conscious decision) to live in harmony with us, it’s only right that you return the favor.
…a monkey snags your lunch while you’re taking a dip in a waterfall.
But monkeys. Oh the monkeys. Never has there been a more adorable thief.
Erawan Falls in western Thailand is one of the most beautiful places in the country — a multi-leveled waterfall in the middle of the jungle, with perfectly clear, warm water for swimming. The first time you go, you’ll probably get lost in the moment (it’s difficult not to). But watch where you put your stuff — those little simians will be rooting through it the instant your back is turned, making off with keys, food, money, and anything they can fit in their grubby little mitts.
Sate them in a more appropriate setting instead. Check out the Lopburi Monkey Banquet, where a gigantic feast is laid out every year just for the monkeys to enjoy. And if you’re feeling sneakily vengeful, steal some of the monkeys’ food. For once, there’s nothing they can do about it.
…you watch lightning give you a fireworks show in the distance while you enjoy the sunset above you.
Somehow, even the bad weather in Thailand is enjoyable. During the wet season, the southern islands are often hit with quick little storms — never long enough to ruin plans, just enough to cool you off. These storms appear in little pockets, and once they’ve passed, you can sit down and watch them go.
I was on Koh Phangan when a storm rolled through one evening. It was just after sunset, and the sky was turning shades of indigo as the light retreated. It was still too warm for shirts, so some friends and I bought a bottle of rum and went down to the beach to relax in the sand. Just above the horizon, the storm was rumbling north, and forks of lightning shot into the sky and into the water. We sat on the beach for an hour just listening to the distant thunder.
If that moment’s not the reason I went to Thailand in the first place, I’m not sure what reason there was.
…you actually enjoyed eating that cricket.
Thailand is all about the street food. It’s also all about trying new things. Sure, you could survive off the pad thai and boiled oysters and soup in a bag. I could eat that every day for the rest of my life and be happy (and much richer!). But when you’ve got so many different choices, why not branch out?
On many of the more trafficked streets, you’ll find people selling foods you’d never see in America. Fried crickets and cockroaches, boiled maggots. By some accounts, it’s a tourist trap. Nobody really eats those. But hey, you’re in Thailand…who’s gonna know? And turns out, it’s not actually that bad. Salty. Crunchy. Like biting into a fried, crispy chicken skin, with bits of leg that get caught between your teeth. Worldly people like to claim they’ll try anything once — time to pony up.
…you pay a random fisherman to drop you off at a secluded beach.
There are over 1,400 islands in Thailand, and a lot of them can make you feel like you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere, with nowhere you’d rather be. But at the most popular beaches, the ones featured in every tropically set movie, the crowds break the illusion. Hard to pretend you’re cast away when you can get 30-baht pad thai and a massage without moving a muscle.
Luckily, you can get the best of both worlds here. You want those massages on the beach? Go for it. But if you want the real ‘deserted island’ experience? You’re still good to go.
The islands are big, and sometimes the best beaches are closed off from the world by impassable karst cliffs. But there are boats everywhere. And since Thailand is such a cheap and friendly place, you can always approach a boatman and offer to pay them to take you somewhere a little more secluded. They’ll pick you up later in the day, and you get to spend your time tanning in the sand with only the sun and the echoes of the lapping waves as your company.
…you stuff yourself silly with a single dollar.
And when that fisherman does take you back to town, there’s a chance you’re gonna be hungry. You didn’t bring food to the beach, did you? No matter where you go, though, there’s food. Thai cuisine is varied and delicious in pretty much every form it comes in.
The best is the street food, the 30-baht plate you pick up off the street corner and eat as you walk away. But even the sit-down joints are amazing, and they rarely cost much more unless you’re really treating yourself. You can get a three-course meal for the equivalent of three bucks, and you’re not going to be able to finish it. Stuff yourself with seafood caught that day, then slip into a food coma as you recline on the beach at sunset. It’s the start of a good evening.
…a massage actually makes you believe in blocked energy flows.
Before I got to Thailand, I was never a big believer in massage. Sure, they feel nice, but come on, there isn’t really a spiritual aspect to it, is there? That’s just mumbo jumbo. But then I saw a sign for a $9 Thai massage. Over the course of 60 minutes, a small woman pressed and kneaded my skin and muscles in ways I never thought possible. It hurt at times, and at others it was relaxing. But a strange thing happened — I started to feel better. Not just in my body, but in my mind.
My masseuse explained that Thai massage affects the flow of energy through the body. By massaging certain pressure points and “chakras,” she was able to release all the pent-up tension blocks and permit my energy to flow again. Try finding a cleanse in America for under $10 that can do all that.
…you take a three-hour trip to Laos just so you can stay another two weeks.
Alas, all trips must come to an end. Without a visa, most foreigners can only stay for 30 days at a time when arriving by airport, and 15 days when arriving by land. But Thailand is addictive. Those days fly by too fast. You’re never really ready to leave, even when you have to.
But you don’t have to leave for long.
Southeast Asia is a relatively tiny region, and Thailand is the central hub through which just about everybody passes. So they make onward travel as easy as possible — buses, trains, and flights anywhere you want to go next. But here’s the thing: Once you leave the country, those 30/15 days reset. Immigration runs are easier in Thailand than just about anywhere in the world. You can catch a quick morning bus ride to Laos / Cambodia / Malaysia, turn right back around, and do it all again.