This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Southern Thailand - First Impressions

Making the plan to go to Thailand is really no big deal. I have traveled just a little around the country but have been to Bangkok four times. Sure there were political problems in Bangkok this spring, but from speaking with other travelers the city seems fine. I also recall something about more serious political problems in the South so should probably research a bit.

At the Thai Consulate we ask if it is safe. Sure, no problem. What else are they going to say? So we ask the Malaysian woman at our guesthouse. Yes, it is safe just do not stand near police, military or a police station since those are the main targets of the separatists. Good advice.

The following is an excerpt from the U.S. State Department website regarding travel to Thailand:
The far south of Thailand has been experiencing almost daily incidents of criminally and politically motivated violence, including incidents attributed to armed local separatist groups. On March 15, 2008, two bombs exploded...The U.S. Embassy prohibits U.S. Embassy personnel from traveling to the far south of Thailand - Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala, and Songkhla provinces, including the town of Hat Yai - without prior mission approval, and Embassy personnel may travel there only on mission-essential travel. The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to defer non-emergency travel to these areas. If U.S. citizens must travel to these areas, they should exercise special caution and remain vigilant with regard to their personal security. Travelers should be aware that Thai authorities have on occasion instituted special security measures in affected areas, such as curfews, military patrols, or random searches of train passengers.
Good thing we are not U.S. Embassy personnel. The Japanese Foreign Ministry has somewhat similar info, but not as severe. They also have a nice color-coded map. The questionable regions are marked from yellow (pretty safe but be careful) to red (don't go). We have to drive through orange to get to our hotel in yellow.

View Larger Map

We take an uncomfortable mini-van for three hours from the Malaysian border to Hat Yai, the largest city in Southern Thailand. From internet research I find out that until recently Hat Yai was pretty much just known for sleazy massage parlors. Sleazy Massage Parlor in Thai means brothel in English. Apparently they are trying to improve their image, and it is now a weekend destination for Malaysians who like to eat Thai food and shop (and visit sleazy massage parlors?). There are direct buses all the way to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

We do not do too much in Hat Yai really, and it feels like during the week there is really not too much to do. We walk around downtown, eat some great Thai seafood in a market and browse sidewalk shops selling souvenirs. We probably should visit the main temple and the world's third largest recling Buddha, but instead opt to go hurry to the bus station and catch a bus to Trang. Where we end up sitting for two hours - more than enough time to visit a recling Buddha even the third largest.

Trang is smaller than Hat Yai. The town seems to be a jumping point to visit the islands in the southwest. We also find out that it is low season now in Southwestern Thailand. This is the rainy season, so many resorts are closed and visibility will not be great. Boat trips are also more expensive now due to lack of customers. Luckily we speak with a very honest woman in a tour office. She explains that we should probably not do the island tour and go instead to Koh Lanta, an island farther north. Talking us out of a tour is probably not great for business, but I really do appreciate her honesty.
A highlight of Trang is finding this vegetarian restaurant. A rarity in South East Asia.

Thailand First Impressions:  This is actually not a true first impression because I have been here before, so just first impressions for this trip.
1) Thai language is impossible to read. Malaysian and Indonesian languages use the English alphabet, so it is easier to learn something. See the word "Ayam" enough times at restaurants I can eventually figure out it means "chicken." Thai is completely foreign, and like a true gringo I cannot be bothered to learn anything.
Well maybe I should actually learn to read Thai considering that YOU ARE HERE is the only English on this tsunami evacuation map.

2) Things are expensive. Not outrageous, but more than we thought. My first trip here in 2004 it was 40 Thai Bhat for one US dollar. The rate now is 32. Things cost about the same, yet I am 20% poorer.

3) Thai food is spicy. Yes, a cliche, but still lip-numbingly true. That red curry you get at your favorite Thai restaurant around the corner from your house is not spicy. According to my calculations the Thai mild here is equivalent to a Western medium-hot. When eating local food (already prepared, not for tourists) my face sweats. It is incredible, just my face. I did not even know the human face had so many glands.
4) The whole region is absolutely filled with rubber trees. The amount of trees dedicated to making Super Balls is astounding and provides a good explanation as to why there is so little remaining natural jungle.

Rubber very slowly making its way down the tree trunk into the black cup.

The International Rambler's Travel Tip
Do not read State Department reports. Well you can read them just do not put too much stock into them. If you do, you won't go anywhere. Put it this way: if the US State Dept. had to write a travel report about Washington D.C. that included crime, West Nile Virus, and the occasional shooting at tourist sites like The Holocaust Memorial Museum then nobody would go to the nation's capital either.

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