My optimism about “layers of culture” in Ko Tao quickly disintegrated as soon as I started trying to access those layers. Overall, Thailand didn’t win my heart.  The places I visited–the places that most people visit–were not, in many ways, very different from any other beach destination or tourist spot in the world. Thailand is full of culture; you can see it everywhere. The King’s photograph is absolutely everywhere you look, and Thais have a definite sense of pride about their country. But I was not really able to experience much of Thai culture where I went, because the tourism road is so heavily traveled  it’s almost as if Thailand has become nothing but a zoo for Westerners to gawk at.

Bangkok is the city of excess. Besides the squid sticks and edible insects on the streets, one could easily think they were traveling through any U.S. city. The Western comforts of 7-eleven, shopping malls, and accessible public transportation systems make it an easy place to travel or live. Places like Khaosan Road make you think you’re on Canal Street in NYC and the overabundance of tourists is shocking, really. With blinding city lights and luxury buses, it’s easy to think you’re in a wealthy developed country. But Thailand is still developing, with some people extremely poor and poorly educated.

Beyond the Bangkok craziness that meets the eye were some lovely little surprises, distinguishing it from any other Western city. On my last day in Bangkok, I was sitting on the street, staring blankly at a map, when two boys walked by. They were wearing school uniforms, so I figured they might speak English. I asked if he knew how to get to the Southern bus terminal, and from my tone of voice and facial expression, they could likely tell that I was haggard. I was pissed off that I had navigated a series of city buses to get to the Thai Post office in the obscene heat, only to find it was closed…on a Tuesday at 11 am. I had given up, and was sitting there, sweating and exhausted.  These poor boys were just one of many that I had hopelessly asked for directions. One of the boys spoke English pretty well.

Joe, the boy who led me safely to the Southern bus station

Joe, the boy who led me safely to the Southern bus station

He took my bags, and walked me around the streets of Bangkok, waiting for me while I changed money at the bank, and taking short bus trips with me to get closer to my destination. Finally, he rode with me for an hour to get to the Southern bus terminal and then walked me through the shopping center maze and to my gate. Joe. He must have spent over 2 hours leading me around, and then, with nothing but a “here is your gate,” he was gone. I will never forget this boy’s kindness. I left him with a note to his English teacher, praising his skills and thanking her for her successful instruction.

Speaking of that bus trip, the best part about it was trying to book the ticket online the day before. I didn’t want to pay the tourist fare that is at least three times the local price, so my Couchsurfing host Lenly and I decided book it online. What an adventure.

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We eventually managed to do it, but it took many minutes of hysterical laughing and confused interpretations of what they could possibly mean by “It is the Junction A. Sweet.” I still wasn’t sure that I had even come close to obtaining the correct ticket, and the next day when I was dropped off in Chumpon at 3 am, alone and completely unaware of where I was, I started cursing that stupid bus ticket.

Well, besides meeting Joe and Lenly, I wasn’t a huge fan of Bangkok. I was eager to get on to Ko Tao. It was incredibly beautiful and I had the time of my life exploring the ocean, but living in luxury took it’s toll on my traveling spirit. I have wanted to learn about Thailand for years, but on Ko Tao I was surrounded only by other foreigners and had no sense of Thailand whatsoever. I was able to escape it a bit with my Spanish CS host in Chalok, a less touristy part of Ko Tao, but still I had the overwhelming sense that I was in a cultural vacum. Over 60 percent of the residents on Ko Tao are Westerners, and another 20 percent are Burmese workers. The island is built for tourism; you can easily rent a motorbike for $3/day, and with so many English-speaking foreigners, it’s impossible to get lost. So while it was lovely to visit, it was hard for me to get a sense of place.

Then to Ko Samui. I had a lot of fun there, it’s true. I met some really great friends, which only reinforced the revelation I’ve been having that meeting friends on the road is a bittersweet endeavor. I’m getting too used to meeting lovely people and then days later saying goodbye. It’s callousing my heart, that’s for sure. Don’t get too comfortable, you’re only going to say goodbye again soon. Despite my friends on Ko Samui, I found myself in flight mode by the end. I wanted out. Not just out of Ko Samui, but out of Thailand. I had had enough, and it wasn’t so much something I realized consciously as a very strong urge just to get to another place–Malaysia, as it happened to be–as soon as possible. I left Thailand with 5 more days on my visa, cancelling my Couchsurfing plans on Ko Lanta last minute.

I don’t want to give the impression that Thailand is devoid of culture. Indeed, I just spent my days in probably the most culture-barren places possible. I only mean to illustrate that if you travel to Thailand, make sure you understand that the places you wish to see, many other foreigners wish to see as well. All of the lovely relaxing islands you read about–Ko Tao, Ko Phangan, Ko Samui, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, etc.–all have a very very large population of tourists and a small population of locals. But it isn’t Thailand you’re visiting, so don’t be fooled. I have looked forward to visiting Thailand my entire life, and it was disheartening to realize that the place I had looked forward to the most was the most disappointing. But I guess the old adage rings true, “Plant an expectation; reap a disappointment.” If you are going to Thailand to get a feel for Thailand, my advice is to stay as far away from the Southern islands as possible. You know you’ve hit a tourist trap when the restaurants have signs for “Thai food,” in…Thailand…

I had very limited interactions with locals, even when I tried to get to know them and learn about them. My sense was that most people just come in and out of their lives, buying things and drinking cocktails on the beaches, not paying mind at all to the fact that they are in another country. So, the locals have learned to treat tourists with indifference, and sometimes just blatant disrespect. Many of them, quite obviously treat us like walking ATMs. In Ko Samui, I was told to be careful on my rented motorbike: hospitals give taxi drivers 500 bhat for delivering a person to their hospital (there are 3 or 4 competing clinics on the island), so people will intentionally knock you off your motorbike and then take you to the hospital out of “kindness.” They can make good money in this endeavor. I’ve been told you cannot trust anyone in Thailand, and while I know, of course, that’s not a universal rule for the country, it is true to some extent. I met an Englishman who had left his bar in Thailand to his wife while he went back England for a year to make more money. He came back to discover the bar was gone; his wife had had him sign it over to him (in Thai) before he left (unbeknownst to him) and when he came back, she had literally taken the money and ran. He couldn’t believe it, as he had been married to her for 3 years, but really, these things happen in Thailand. The common belief now is that Thai girls are just after the money of Western guys, and Western guys are blind to this because they love being treated like a king by these ladies.  Of course, this is not always the case, but it does seem to be the pervasive phenomenon here.

And, now, I will close by commenting on something that I came to Thailand specifically to investigate on my own. Before I left, I found myself in a conversation about Thai prostitutes (I tend to find myself in strange conversations from time to time). A friend of mine told me not to condemn the sex-trade in Thailand; he said that having sex with a Thai prostitute for $10 a night is helping these girls. He explained that, for a Thai girl, making $10 a go is a huge sum of money–much more money than most Thais make in a week. So you’re helping these girls.

It’s common knowledge that prostitution in Thailand is an enormous industry. Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, so initially, I was baffled that the in-your-face, X-rated hookers walking the street weren’t being hauled off in cuffs every night. But it seems that even though prostitution has been illegal since the 1960s, and indeed overt sexuality is extremely counter to Thai culture, sex-tourism is a $4.3 billion industry that accounts for 3 percent of the Thai economy. So it’s no wonder the streets aren’t being patrolled by cops.

I found this extremely sad, and in my investigation  I found that the industry is not helping these people, as many Westerners choose to believe. The streets in all the main tourist spots are littered with not-so-attractive white boys, toting around Thai girls with a huge smile on their face. They are likely of the belief that they’re doing some service to these girls. This is the justification so many foreigners give for their completely blatant participation in this exploitative industry. You don’t see people in the States walking proudly down the streets with prostitutes; at home, it’s considered taboo and exploitative to many. But here, the acne-covered faces of the Westerners shine with their prize and false intentions for community service. It’s accepted and it’s OK.

It makes me fucking sick to think about, and extremely angry at the completely obvious twisted logic. If you care about helping these girls, why not invest $10 in their education, or their future. Instead, they pay them for sex, a trade that does not require them to learn anything new about any particular subject or about the world in general (except that sex sells): throw them some money, and perpetuate the demand for the industry, thus keeping them in a social tier that they will never be able to climb out of. Money is not helping them attain anything in life. How many Thai prostitutes are going to one day say “Oh, I’ve saved $500 from my work, I think I’ll go to college?” They send the money back to their families, often families in the countryside, don’t have any prospects for an educated future, and continue their work because they have no other option. If you actually cared about these people feeding their families and having a future, you would not be buying into this industry; anyone can see that it hasn’t helped Thailand. It’s turned the “country of smiling people,” as it is still called, into a country of fake, money-making smiles and an amusement park for Westerners. And that is where it is going to stay, as long as this keeps happening. The girls are trained to fake tears, tragic stories, or anything else that will swindle a little more cash out of their short-term love affairs, and they don’t learn how to do anything else with their futures.

I talked to one girl, in Ko Samui on my last day while waiting for the ferry. She was, at first, reluctant to talk to me, but I pushed the interview, using tactics to make her more comfortable.  I was determined to understand the industry more, and not just make assumptions based on what I perceived to be true.   I told her in the United States, it’s “same same”–no judgement to pass, just asking about her life. She told me she came from the North of Thailand (I couldn’t commit the name of the town to memory). Her parents sent her to Bangkok when she was 13. She has been working for various pimps ever since. Now, she is 24. Her English is good (she said she is lucky to practice with Westerners), but she told me she will be working this way until she gets old, or until she finds a Western husband. She said her family is still hoping that she will one day marry a Westerner, and even though she hasn’t found one yet she remains hopeful; this is the ultimate goal for the majority of these girls. I could feel her sadness, talking to her. I asked her if she liked what she was doing with her life, and she said “Do you like it, if you prostitute?” I think she meant, “would you like itm” but I understood her point. I was heartbroken. Even writing this, I verge on tears, thinking about how this girl, Kanya, is stuck here and remembering her voice, sounding hopeless.

So. My final impression of South Thailand: not for me. I traveled with an Irish journalist on the train from Surat Thani to Hat Yai, and he said he has been coming to Thailand for the past 20 years, as his area of writing has concerned mostly Southeast Asia. His words: “Thailand is ruined.” He said it hasn’t always been this way, but now he doesn’t see how it can change.  The economy has benefited from the tourism industry, but the cost that that industry has brought is arguably much higher than any dollar amount could illustrate.

The moment I stepped over the border into Malaysia (well, not exactly the moment, but you know..) I was flooded with culture once again. If I ever return to Thailand, it will be to go further with my diving certifications on Ko Tao, or to explore the North and East of the country. I will miss the incredible Thai curries and super-hot chilies, but besides my gluttonous love affairs, Thailand was not for me.

Now Malaysia…that’s a very different story.