Scratching the surface of Thailand

From a travel standpoint, Thailand is sometimes considered an overdone destination. The floating markets have turned into tacky tourist traps. The full moon parties are out of hand. Islands that intrepid backpackers found by bumming rides on rickety coconut boats back in the ’70s and ’80s are now outfitted with airports and hundreds of resorts. It might seem there’s nothing left to discover in the Kingdom — and at least a few writers have said that.

Yet here I am, feeling like I’ve hardly scratched the surface of Thailand — both the country and culture — despite having lived here permanently for over three years while working as a travel writer, traveled extensively in the country for several more years prior, worked at a Thai restaurant for over a decade, made many good Thai friends, learned to speak the language with some confidence, followed the political situation closely for years, stayed in some of the temples, read several books on Thai history, wrote a 120-page paper on Thai Buddhism and been in a relationship with a Thai woman for quite some time. Even after all of that, Thailand is still very much a mystery.

And I guess that’s what keeps me here, slowly digging deeper towards the country’s roots. People who only know it from a distance tend to see a distinctive (and beautiful) “Thai” culture. In fact, a diverse tapestry of origins can be found in everything from the food to the traditional artwork.

Yes, ethnic Thais had a lot to do with creating what’s now Thailand, but so did the Lao, Mon, Khmer, Cham, Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Burmese, Viet and Malay, not to mention countless tribes and nomads, as well as plenty of Westerners. In fact, if it weren’t for Cham, Chinese, Portuguese and other foreign soldiers rallying behind General Taksin to repel a massive attack by the Ava kingdom in 1767, Thailand as we now know it probably never would have come into existence, and the people within its present territory might speak a Burmese dialect. Taksin himself, who became a legendary Siamese king, was half Chinese.

Ethnically, your average Thai citizen is most likely a mix of two or more of these groups, and the culture is a complete mash-up. On a 10-minute stroll through Bangkok you might pass Chinese noodle stalls, Sri Lankan temple architecture, Lao papaya salad and countless Hindu influences, from the spirit shrines down to the flowers that are offered to images of the Buddha. Most visitors pass all of this off as “Thai” — and it is, in a way. But noticing the actual roots has changed the way I see the country.

Beyond the mixed cultural element, there’s so much in Thailand that remains off the tourist trail. Not far from Bangkok, places like Nakhon Chaisi and Tha Chalom are some of the most intriguing places I’ve come across, but you won’t find much written about them. You’ll even come across some truly special spots that are never on tourist itineraries in the middle of Bangkok, like Trok Mor Market or Baan Bu. Don’t even get me started on some of the magnificent but rarely visited islands out there.

In short, anyone who says Thailand is totally overrun by tourists must have never wandered far from Sukhumvit or Samui (though you’ll even find worthwhile and offbeat things to see, do and eat in the tourist centers). The country is as fascinating as ever to explore from a historical-cultural viewpoint, and it still conceals plenty of places that will satisfy your hankering for something “authentic”. All it takes is a little time and courage to explore.




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