Almost any person who’s stepped on a jet plane seems to have been to Thailand, bringing back countless snapshots and uniforms of sunburn, Chang beer singlets and elephant pants to accompany their stories of backpacker and beach bum bliss.
So, it was with great delight and the occasional discomfort that I found myself surprised during the five weeks I was in Thailand and its jungly neighbour Laos.
By the graciousness of the Thai people. Since the long-reigning Thai monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej sadly passed away just before I flew into Bangkok, I was unsure what to expect from the land of smiles, where his people are mourning no less keenly than those who have lost a family member.
Bangkok was a sea of black. The Old City quarter overflowed with Thais who had come to pay their respects, but if you showed respect and wore muted clothing and/or a black ribbon, your presence was not only tolerated but welcomed with sincere smiles, coconut ice cream from army officers and bottled water against the raging sun.
Later, after a less-than-hospitable dog bite in Thailand’s north and associated rabies vaccination drama, the doctor’s practice I stopped in at for a dressing check-up would not hear of payment, despite examination, re-cleaning, calming reassurances and dispensation of a good supply of swabs and other paraphernalia.
But despite the high standard of medical care in the country, I was unprepared for its…
Selfie epidemic. Although standards of living in this developing nation have strong city and country contrasts, its city dwellers are some of the most digitally-engaged people I’ve ever met in the world.
I witnessed border control officers taking selfies with tourists and was the subject of a couple of ‘drive-by’ street selfies with locals in Bangkok, where a new selfie-optimised smartphone is being heavily promoted.
Tellingly, the launch of PokemonGo caused utter chaos in Thailand and a ride on the modern BTS Skytrain is quite unlike everything else in Bangkok: quiet. Aside from smartphone notifications…
Unexpectedly, I also quite enjoyed being a laughing stock.
The Thai people love to laugh and us blundering farangs (foreigners) provide ample comedy.
One of my most popular stand-up routines involved trying to order a delicious Thai rice or noodle dish without any of the allergy-inducing crustaceans which sneak into the local cuisine.
When pointing at something on a menu or a mysterious, bubbling street food vat and asking if it contained crab, prawn or shrimp paste, street vendors would often burst into laughter.
Because, of course, everyone knows Unidentified Dish A contains none of the little terrors. How silly of me!
But the lovely thing is they’re not being mean-spirited about it. If you can appreciate their mirth at encountering a tourist anxious to avoid Thailand’s pungent shrimp paste or are the type to try wielding a few local phrases, you find a sense of humour goes a long way in making some local connections.
One further pleasant surprise; Thailand has switched on to responsible tourism.
While the adult tourism industry is still present, full moon parties attract drunken sorts in the south and some people can’t bring themselves to bypass the chance of riding an elephant, anyone wanting to ethically experience the country now has no lack of choice in doing so.
For one, more of the elephant parks near Chiang Mai are moving away from offering elephant riding — something which appears to stem from tourist demand and a Thai desire to address the welfare of an animal so strongly intertwined with their history and culture.
Not keen on the big wrinklies?
How about a Thai massage from female former prisoners (or from blind masseurs, for those who like their massage formidably firm), an eco retreat or a cooking class with sustainably-produced organic ingredients?
And you’re feeling herded and packaged, Laos gets you off the tourist trail.
The country still has its share of tourist traps — good luck enjoying that sunset from the Mount Phousi temple while 500 other people fight you for elbow room — but it’s also astonishingly easy to get away from these.
Half an hour’s walk from the centre of Luang Prabang, you can enter a labyrinthine covered market and watch a spice merchant bagging up her wares like a one-woman factory of flavour, buy freshly-baked banana bread, inspect all the trappings of a domestic Laotian life and there’s seldom a tourist to be seen.
Further down the road, past hairdressers and garages, a spit-roasted dog turns in readiness for evening diners.
A few hours in a minibus takes you further off the tourist trail to somewhere like Nong Khiaw — a tiny town sheltering in the lee of dramatic limestone peaks. Choose to relax and visit caves, local villages and waterfalls while retaining some basic Western creature comforts or head up the Nam Ou river in search of adventure and Wi-Fi dead zones.
Even if the process of getting there is nothing like you’ve ever experienced. At some point in Laos, you will probably end up riding on a VIP bus. You will undoubtedly end up in a Very Intriguing Position.
One example: the VIP night bus I booked from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, where I shared a sleeper bed with a Vietnamese fellow, curled up in pain as a wave of food poisoning struck and clumsily stepped on faces and limbs of those sleeping in the aisle while desperately seeking the bus’s nonexistent toilet.
Another quirk of the public transport here is that it’s often comprised of vehicles privately owned by the drivers.
This makes for a unique and personal experience, such as passengers pitching in with advice when your minivan fails to start or a window falls out and unscheduled breaks, especially if your driver sees a roadside market and decides to stop, heading off to do his weekly shopping.
You soon start factoring in a few hours for such pitstops and navigation of roads that are in some parts more pothole than not. And pray that you do actually get there late, as it means your driver is not overtaking on blind corners and that you can take in the stunning scenery without diving for a sick bag.
One final surprise: Remembering that you’re in a communist country.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the gorgeous scenery or the tourist bubble and forget the fact that you’re in a country with government structures vastly different to those of Western visitors. Indeed, I met a fair number of Laos travellers who had no idea that they’d actually entered a communist country.
It’s not really something you’re reminded of much while walking tourist favourites like Luang Prabang, with its UNESCO world heritage French townhouses, crowded night market and exquisite temples.
But sometimes you come across something that brings you back to where you are:
Small-town loudspeakers broadcasting the latest news from the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the airstrip in Vang Vieng which was used by the CIA for ‘Air America’ pro-Royalist supply missions in Laos during the Vietnam war, following which the monarchy was overthrown …. or Zumba.
The parks honouring the communist elite in Laos seem to also function as public exercise spots, where people come together to run, stretch and — as an unexpected insight into these shy but kind and friendly people — exuberantly let loose in Zumba group classes to pumping Western chart music.
And after a month and a half of Southeast Asia, I’ve made it home to the familiarity, family, friends — and indeed, surprises — of New Zealand. Have a fantastic Christmas and auspicious start to the new year, wherever you are, and see you in 2017!