Thailand: Land of Smiles and Friendliness. You sure about that?

25th June: Krabi

“Would you like a coffee?” The custom officer politely asks as he takes the papers from our hands.

“Coffee??!!” Chris and I answer in unison, with what can only appear, to an outsider, as utterly idiotic expressions.

It’s a simple enough question, one would think; one which certainly would not require a 5 minute pause of confusion. But this one does. It’s the first time we’ve been offered anything in Thailand, by anyone, let alone a government official working in a Customs House. At first, we both surmise this is going to be a very expensive ‘stamp’ but then realise that this man standing in front of us appears incredibly genuine.

“Oh…oh…really??…oh yes please!!” Is our eventual answer.

Half an hour later, after the coffee has been drunk, sweets have been devoured (what the…?) and a new stamp added to our bike’s permits, we leave. Without paying a single baht. All up, we’ve managed to renew our tourist visa AND our motorbike permits in about an hour.

The mind boggles…

IMG_3331

As we enter our third month in the country both Chris and I have come to the conclusion that Thais don’t like foreigners very much. Nor do they have much respect for them nor (while I’m at it) are they overly friendly. Smiley? Sure!! Heck, ‘the country of a thousand smiles’ has built a whole tourism industry on the concept of a ready smile. Friendly? Now that’s something else…

Head to Thailand on an all expenses paid vacation for two weeks and I can understand you going home with a rose-tinted view of this rather lovely looking country. The smiles are omnipresent, as are the bows and the wais. As long as you’re handing over the bahts, that is. But should you ever find yourself requesting assistance for ANYTHING other than booking a room, ordering a meal, dropping hundreds every night at the bar or organising a tour to 101 idyllic islands…then you’re likely to encounter a concrete wall. The Thais seemed to have mastered the art of ‘passing the buck’. Need something done? Fixed? Sourced out? Advised on? Nah. It’s never them, it’s always someone else. “No, not here. Go there” waving finger in some obscure direction. “No, I no have” – “Well do you know where I could go?” – “No. Not here”. And so the stories go…

Thailand, the beautiful. Thank god for that, at least...

Thailand, the beautiful. Thank god for that, at least…

5th June: Hua Hin

I wake up in a panic one morning, whilst in Hua Hin, when I realise my netbook’s refusing to start. I’ve had problems with it for a few weeks, and I assumed it was now time to have it looked at. Luckily, we were in a rental villa with friends visiting from home, so at least I had ONE contact in town: the property manager. Surely a one-month-long rental payment ought to buy me just a wee bit of help on this one? So I ring her up and ask for a computer repair shop recommendation. Conversation goes something like this:

“Oh…go to the third floor of the new shopping mall. Computer shop there!”

“Fantastic, thank you so much! Now, you’re sure they REPAIR computers, not just sell them?”

“Yes, yes, repair, Go there!”

10 minutes later, I’m standing at said shop’s counter.

“No, no repair here. Just sell”

“Rightio. Never mind. Could you please tell me WHERE I can have this netbook repaired?”

“No, not here. Bangkok” But this time, he’s not even pointing in the general northern direction of Bangkok (200kms away), he literally waves me off.

I persevere. I tend to do that when I’m fuming.

“You mean to tell me…that in a city of 100,000 people, one of Bangkok’s most popular week-end destination and the place where even the royal family has a holiday house…there’s NO computer repair shop?”

“No, no shop here. Bangkok!” He’s friggin’ sticking to his guns.

“The King’s grandson’s netbook breaks and he must drive aaaaall the way to Bangkok?”

“Yes. No shop here, Bangkok”

I walk off in a flurry and proceed to pick up the phone. Property manager sounds a tad annoyed.

“OK, I ask my son OK? Maybe he knows? I call back.”

Oh so now we do understand? Why on earth would you not do that first, rather than dismiss me with a simple recommendation? I tell you why. ‘Cos they just could not be arsed, that’s why. In Australian speak, it means ‘they have no motivation to do something’. In Laura-speak, however, it means as long as there is nothing for them to gain, they shall not go to any bother.

As it turned out, the teenage son of the property manager did indeed know a guy, near a bike shop up the road, who could fix my computer. All smiles the repairman was, asking 100 questions about our trip. Once I handed over 700baht for parts and service, his smile was even brighter. But he still never offered us coffee.

This has been pretty much the story of our lives for the past two months. I’m not even going to bother telling you about the super-painful 5hr marathon we suffered when getting our permits extended the first time. Dear lord that was like pulling blood from stone.

28th May: Bangkok

“Not here. Somewhere else” was the first reply of the customs dude at Bangkok airport.

“No, not somewhere else, HERE” We argued for hours.

“Not my job” he replied

“PRECISELY your job!” I (nearly) screamed in frustration, as we stood at the office of the “Vehicle Temporary Import Office. “This is possibly the ONLY FLAMIN’ JOB YOU HAVE!!!!”

I know, I know. Not here, somewhere else…

Incompetence, lack of knowledge, lack of interest and lack of care. I really find it difficult to sum it up in any other way. Now, before you start bombarding me with comments on how cheap, beautiful and easy this country is, to travel through, rest assured that I know all that. That’s why I’m here. Actually no, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because Thailand is kind of on the way to Australia, but that’s not the point.

Yes, Thailand is beautiful. It boasts stunning seaside resorts, interesting northern historic sites, yummy food and is cheap as chips. But so are a lot of other countries. What I’m looking for, is a little more. But I fail to find it here.

“Oh you shouldn’t take it personal. Thais are some of the most racist people you will ever meet in Asia. They hate everybody. They hate the Chinese, they hate the Indians and they certainly detest Westerners….to them we’re just a bunch of idiots. Besides, they’re even racist towards one another!”

This little snippet of wisdomness was imparted on us by a new friend made in a remote sea-side town in central Thailand. He’s a foreigner of course, one who has lived here for years. As I recount our endless stories of total unfriendliness and unhelpfulness, he does nothing but smile and nod.

I never actually knew about the rampant problem of xenophobia in Thailand and, to be brutally honest, I almost liked it better when I did think it was just me. We did come across a few quite-obvious examples of ‘racism’ but this is not a very unique phenomenon. In very touristy areas, in foreign countries where political correctness has yet to take hold, don’t be surprised to see signs like these:

Anti-Arab sign on Pattaya Beach. Something tells me they're not good tippers...

Anti-Arab sign on Pattaya Beach. Something tells me they’re not good tippers…

We found exceptions of course, for no rule could ever be valid without those. We’ve had some lovely encounters with seemingly friendly locals, yet they have all been either guesthouse or restaurant owners, never random people for random reasons. Not only in Thailand, mind you, but neither in Cambodia nor Lao. We’ve been on the road for almost 3 years now and, since we left China in September last year, never have we received an invitation or offer of a cup of tea or a meal. Never. One never looks for it, of course, yet when something is so blatantly amiss…one notices. there is nothing more heartwarming than being invited to ‘break bread’, as they say, with locals in a foreign country. This usually gifts us some of the most memorable encounters on the road.

Chris, Michael and I having dinner with locals in a small town in China. They saw us in the foyer of a hotel and chased us inside to invite us out for a meal :)

Chris, Michael and I having dinner with locals in a small town in China. They saw us in the foyer of a hotel and chased us inside to invite us out for a meal 🙂 Just because…

I’ve previously written about the perceived consequences of mass tourism in Lao, if you remember, and I’m left wondering if we’re dealing with  the same issue here. You know…same, same…but different?

I remember getting into a very interesting discussion with fellow overlanders, back when we spent the winter in Georgia in 2013. They argued that Georgia, and any other former Soviet country, are not nice places to visit because the people there never smile. In fact, they always look like they want to kill you. That’ not entirely untrue…yet if Georgia has taught me anything, it’s how one should never judge upon first impressions. And how ‘smiles’ and ‘friendliness’ are, at times, completely unrelated. Back then, my conversation companion actually cited Thailand as the ideal comparison country. “People smile there all the time! They are so friendly!” He said. Yet now, after our experiences, never has ‘smiles’ and ‘friendliness’ appeared to be so mutually exclusive.

In Georgia, people may have been slow to warm up to us foreigners, but when they eventually did, they smiled with their souls. Once you’re in, you’re really IN: you’re part of the family, you get invited to weddings, family get-togethers and, not only are you invited to a meal, but you’re expected to help prepare it. I liked that.

Learning to make khatchapuri, on a snowy day in Mestia

Learning to make khatchapuri, on a snowy day in Mestia

So now perhaps you understand why Chris and I nearly choked on our own saliva when offered a coffee by the customs’ official in Krabi. As I’ve said, we’ve also had exceptions.

28th June: Ko Lanta Island

As we board the last ferry from the mainland, direct for Ko Lanta Island, I hear the now familiar sound of Pixie’s valves flapping away. She’s been dragging this valve slap problem for months, and for just as long we’ve managed to ignore it and stall it. But now it’s gotten so loud I can’t even hear the engine running anymore.

As my in-house mechanic takes apart the engine casing, I sit there, pussy cat in lap, praying to the biker-gods above that whatever is wrong with Pixe, can be fixed with what we have.

Then I hear my most hated word in the English language.

“Bugger.”

“I need to adjust your cam chain but your bike necessitates a very particular tool, which we don’t have. Somehow, I’ll need to find a mechanic here on the island who can help me out.”

Yes. Good luck with that, sunshine…

(NB. As a preemptive strike, let me remind you (in case it ain’t obvious enough) that this article reflects the personal views of the author (moi) based on her personal experiences. Nothing more. Nothing less. 🙂 )

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10 Responses to Thailand: Land of Smiles and Friendliness. You sure about that?

  1. Helen says:

    Thank you so nice to hear an honest account and so true.

  2. Seb says:

    Don’t forget, there’s a HUGE difference between overlanding and “tourism”… 😉 We just don’t experience things the same as the one/two week holiday makers that are spending a lot of money being served everywhere, as you are looking for the more genuine part of a place…

    • laurapattara says:

      Exactly Seb, that’s why I made a point of mentioning it early in in the piece. I don’t necessarily think holiday-makers come here donning blindfolds, but they simply have completely different needs. And those needs are met ten-fold in Thailand 🙂

  3. Heike says:

    That’s why I didn’t bother to go there again…
    Even many years ago, it wasn’t the land of the smile anymore….the food is good, but that’s about it !
    And Laos is going in the same direction !

    By the way, I loved the Georgians…very nice people !

    Cheers Heike

    • laurapattara says:

      Yes, I’m sure it was a very different story, years ago. Nevertheless, and something you and I have spoken about before 😉 I accept that there are countries which are great for holiday-makers and others more suited to long-term overlanders. Thailand is still a formidable holiday destination, but perhaps not the best overlanding one. Cheers back!!

  4. Drix says:

    Meeeeh … Good point. But after riding in Thailand for months, I can honestly say that this is all true as long as you stay on the “banana pancake trail”. I met great people off the beaten tracks in Isaan or in the northern mountains. Families have invited me to restaurants and wouldn’t let me pay for anything, people would invite me to sleep over … Met some nice and helpful dudes when stopped on the side of the road without the proper tool, etc. Now it’s true that in tourist areas such as Kra(p)i, Hua Hin, Koh this and Koh that, people are getting tired with westeners and their often disrespectful attitudes. Yes, you can feel like being just a walking wallet to them in these parts of the Kingdom. But keep on exploring, especially if you have the freedom of a motorcycle: don’t follow the overspeeding tourist vans ’cause they are all heading the same way: to the next “must do” listed on the Lonely Planet ! 🙂

    • laurapattara says:

      Hello Drix,

      Thanks so much for your comments. You make a very valid point…yet although my examples were of major hubs (they had to be due to immigration & customs houses only being found there) we did obviously spend quite a bit of time off that so-called ‘pancake trail’. We don’t ‘do’ museums, major sites or many temples for that matter. After 9 months one gets a little temple-ed out 🙂 And as I said, we also had exceptions; a few of them, We’ve met simply gorgeous people, whether the lady at the market throwing in a few extra tomatoes after I paid, or whatever. Lovely. But here I’m talking about a general, inherent behavior of a country which primarily sells itself on its friendliness. And as far as the tourist-trail goes, I don’t personally believe there is a corner of Thailand which is not, in high season, inundated with foreign visitors. This is the France of SE Asia, the most visited country in the region. I’ve been told innumerable times to ‘go north, that’s where I went, people are nicer there’…so then everyone goes north. So now there is a very evident tourist trail there too, just no wikipage about it 😉
      Perhaps, just perhaps, people are different up north because they are of a different ethnic background, with different cultural norms and behaviors. Mass tourism can somewhat change a ‘people’, superficially and in certain parts but, at least in my experiences, it does not have the power to change a culture so dramatically.
      Anyway, we’ve certainly had a great tome here, nonetheless. All countries are a sum of many small parts. Plenty of great ones here too.
      Happy and safe riding to you 🙂

      • Drix says:

        100% agreed 🙂 Safe n happy ride to you too ! Keep on posting those brilliantly written reports, always a pleasure and an inspiration to read

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