Thailand Part III: Navigating Perception and Reality in Chiang Mai

I began Chiang Mai on a strange note. Shortly after checking into my hostel, I was cleaning out my inbox when I found a disturbing blurb in the Council on Foreign Relations:

THAILAND: Thai police shut down a meeting hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand to discuss abuses (AP) against Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s military, ordering panelists not to speak on the subject.

Voice of America noted that the Foreign Correspondents Club had planned to host a panel discussion entitled “Will Myanmar’s Generals Ever Face Justice for International Crimes?” I was shocked. The event featured notable human rights advocates and journalists, including Tun Khin, a prominent U.K.-based Rohingya activist and Kingsley Abbott, a representative of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). While the headline raised issues about journalistic coverage of the Rohingya crisis, it also left me puzzled by two other questions. The first tied to the issue of location. Rather than Yangon or Mandalay, why were Thai authorities in Bangkok shutting down press panels dedicated to coverage of crimes committed against the Rohingya? The second was the matter of geopolitics. What exactly is the relationship between Thailand and Myanmar, I wondered, and how has it evolved in the wake of the 2014 Thai military coup? My time in Chiang Mai did not directly answer these questions but it did start me down the path of understanding their background.    

But I digress.

Chiang Mai is, of course, far more than troubling news stories. For starters, the Rose of the North is truly lovely. It is a charming city that sharply contrasts with the chaos and crowds of Bangkok. With its golden pagodas, hip coffee shops, and mountainous surroundings, the place exudes vibes that are refreshingly chiller than its southern counterpart. Virtually every traveler I’ve met in Southeast Asia gushes about their time there. It is, objectively, a difficult place to complain about. And yet here I go. My time in Chiang Mai LRG-DSC07243also exhibited the unsavory contradictions that percolate throughout Thailand. It is a city bursting with digital nomads (myself temporarily included!), a place rife with incompetence and corruption, and a haven for enamored backpackers wearing rose-colored glasses. My conversations with locals in Chiang Mai revealed some of the darker lessons from Thailand’s past and also pointed to the complicated reality of the present. While I had encounters with genuinely inquisitive people, I also had unsettling interactions with naive, obnoxious assholes. At the end of the day, I experienced some of my happiest moments in Chiang Mai but also faced some of my toughest ones there too.

Within this smattering of emotions and observations, I’ve tried to form a cohesive narrative. This post is divided into three parts. I’ll first discuss Chiang Mai’s growing oasis of digital expats, then dive into the problematic history of Thailand’s military and drug policy, and conclude with the vexing issue of touristic perceptions clashing with local realities. I’ll admit it: this one really runs the gamut. And somewhere in that verbal gumbo, you can find cushy tales of bathing elephants, exploring temples, and watching Muay Thai boxing. But you should really follow me on Instagram if that’s your cup of tea. Anyway, let’s start from the beginning: a twenty-minute conversation I had back in August with an old friend.

In The Belly of the Digital Nomad Beast

Before arriving in Chiang Mai, most of my understanding of the ancient northern city came from one person: an old college buddy named Pete. Through the grapevine last summer, I learned that Pete had lived in Chiang Mai for three months. While I trip planned in Albany, we jumped on the phone so he could share his insider tips and tricks on navigating Chiang Mai. Pete’s an interesting dude. He’s designed mobile apps, recently moved onto a boat, and still owns a bottle of Chanel perfume just because he enjoys the scent. But as a burgeoning startup geek, Pete had decided to spend his formative entrepreneurial months in Thailand in 2016 where life was smooth and easy. Pete rattled off insights into motorbike rentals, secret bars that stayed open late, and the laid-back vibe that fuels the city. I reviewed my notes from the conversation, and I actually did manage to visit many of the hotspots on his hitlist. Pete also was genuinely nostalgic for his time there, waxing poetic about cruising the streets on his motorbike or snagging some mouth-watering street eats on the way home from a cafe. His excitement was contagious. Pete’s ability to balance work and fun suggested that I could definitely do the same.  

I soon learned that Pete was one of many. Like Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai has developed somewhat of an international reputation. Shortly after my arrival in Thailand, I began hearing stories of digital nomads, savvy entrepreneurs, and remote workers making the pilgrimage north. On the ferry to Koh Phangan, a gregarious Mauritian informed me that he had lived there for several years and watched a growing community of expats take advantage of cheap prices and a laid-back vibe. I Googled only to find page after page of blog posts and internet forums. Each one made the case for hightailing it to Chiang Mai to pursue your entrepreneurial dreams. In “24 Reasons Chiang Mai is the Best Place for Digital Nomads”, the Chiang Mai Buddy provides a dizzying array of local websites, entrepreneurial resources, and cultural attractions that cement Chiang Mai as a top destination for digital nomads. Another listicle entitled “5 Damn Good Reasons to Startup in Chiang Mai”, argues that apart from the rich culture of the Lanna Kingdom and surplus of cheap apartments, entrepreneurs can access blazingly fast internet speeds and a vibrant community of fellow nomads. Even Forbes has raved of Chiang Mai’s beautiful countryside and cheap cost of living for entrepreneurs. I even discovered that the first Digital Nomad Summit was hosted in Chiang Mai in 2015 and the fifth conference is slated to take place in early 2019. Someone sound the angel investor conch shell: it’s about to get nomadic!   

Fortunately, I had already planned to spend my first few days in Chiang Mai working remotely and catching up on emails. I was eager to feign membership in the frenzied culture of shared workspaces, strong coffee, and entrepreneurial spirit. After all, with my remote work for Open Data Watch, I myself am technically a digital nomad. During breakfast at Family Home Chiang Mai, the hostel’s easygoing owner Joe mapped out at least three nearby shops to snag an affordable Americano and access reliable WiFi. I’ll admit that I completed my first dispatch about this trip at an extremely hip and artsy cafe in Chiang Mai called Ma Chill Coffee (pictured below). It delivered a caffeine-laden Ma Chill Coffeeescape and some much-needed R&R. In the evenings, when I closed my computer and sauntered down the crowded streets of central Chiang Mai, the hip storefronts beckoned me inside. Under the gleam of Edison bulbs and repurposed wood, the city seemed to be building its own Southeast Asian version of Williamsburg or Silver Lake. Chiang Mai, like so many other digital destinations, has tapped into the hipster nerve that every globally-oriented young professional secretly salivates over.   

Despite the mountains of clickbait touting the merits of Chiang Mai’s livability, this was a far cry from formal government policy. Was the city’s popularity a viral phenomenon of internet articles and Silicon Valley gossip? Or had Thailand, and Chiang Mai specifically, leveraged top-down capital and investment to build a mecca for entrepreneurs from across the globe? Most governments would kill for that kind of publicity. With nothing better to do on a cool night in southern Vietnam, I figured I would investigate. I began by reviewing a number of Thailand’s national planning documents and then sifted through Chiang Mai’s digital innovation portals. There is truly no better way to decompress after a thimble of cricket wine than reading a 275 page PDF document. That’s a fact. Fortunately, my research proved enlightening.  

The country’s broad-based national development policy is its Twelfth National Economic and Social Development Plan, 2017 – 2021. The hefty document maps out a variety of objectives ranging from eradicating corruption to building a 21st-century infrastructure. The meat and potatoes of its formal Information, Communications Technology (ICT) roadmap lie in Strategy 8, a Strategy for the Development of Science, Technology, Research, and Innovation. This section’s broad strokes include increasing their investment in R&D to support the Internet of Things and digital technology and developing an environment that promotes science and technology. It also proposes a framework to develop “technopreneurs”. Although the National Plan is short on policies that send dollars into innovation hubs or workspaces, Strategy 7 sets ambitious goals to expand the coverage of high-speed internet services countrywide. Bingo. While Thailand strives to jump spots on the Network Readiness Index (NRI) or add more digital entrepreneurs to the economy, the country also has sought to boost investment. The government aims to move the needle of R&D investment to 1.5% of GDP by 2021, a sizable portion of its economic output. Part of this investment will fulfill stated deliverables like adding international submarine cables, establishing shared frequency agreements with neighboring countries, and enhancing laws that foster technological growth. In other words, Thailand’s aiming to become an internet speed leader. And fast.   

Yet Chiang Mai’s own government appears to be the primary culprit in cultivating its digital nomad reputation since the early aughts. An article in the Kyoto Review chronicles government actions that have positioned Chiang Mai to attract an international influx of entrepreneurs. For one, the launch of the Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC) in 2008 and subsequent opening in Chiang Mai in 2013 provided a welcome space for entrepreneurs and technologists. While the TCDC prioritized Thai cultural products like massages, food, and music, it also emphasized the growth of digital technologies. Second, and even more instrumental, was the Governor’s creation of Creative Chiang Mai in 2010. The organization is coordinated by the Chiang Mai Creative City Development Committee, a hodgepodge of academics, government officials, and private sector employees. It touts itself not as a project, but a long-term vision for the city of Chiang Mai, and seeks to create a formal economic corridor of innovation housed in Chiang Mai. Moreover, Creative Chiang Mai already has some major accomplishments under its belt. The city gained access to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in 2011 as a hub of Crafts and Folk Art and continues to organize the annual Chiang Mai Design Awards.

Despite Chiang Mai’s burgeoning reputation as an epicenter of digital creativity, let’s not get carried away. Many commentators, myself included, have noted that a country’s focus on entrepreneurship and innovation should not eclipse the value of open government or democratic norms. Rwanda serves as a prime example. While the government is routinely cited as a leader in innovation, it also ranks as “not free” by Freedom House. Last December, for example, President Kagame barred a journalist from attending the UN’s Annual Internet Governance Forum. I am not equating Thailand to Rwanda. But I am underscoring the cognitive dissonance between the growing tech frenzy and the phenomenon of shrinking civic spaces. After all, Thailand’s Open Data Inventory Country Score is a dismal 33 of 100, suggesting that there’s room for improvement. While Chiang Mai attracts digital nomads from around the globe and positions itself as a hub for innovation, this only represents one dimension of its civil society. I would soon learn there was more below the surface. But it took a night of old-school hip-hop, several rounds of billiards, and four buckets of ice beers to reveal some of the area’s deeper struggles with corruption, drugs, and politics.

Of Conspiracy Theories, Drug Wars, and Unlikely Friends

After two days of grinding in the bowels of Chiang Mai’s digital nomad factory, I needed a release. Coffee simply wasn’t cutting it anymore. And even my 20-minute break having my skin ticklishly cleaned by nibbling fish only slightly took the edge off. Fortunately, IMG_0396after sharing a few beers at the hostel with some fellow backpackers, I learned that a night out was in order. Apart from Family Home’s owner Joe, the hostel employed two tattoo-clad, half-Thai, half-Canadian brothers that were reliable hangout pals for the weary traveler. They manned the front desk, listened to mumble rap, and chain-smoked cigarettes. They were also a dynamic duo of friendliness and coolness and soon invited me out to a local hip-hop bar. After a quick wardrobe change, we headed by motorbike to a narrow, dimly lit bar with a pool table, graffiti, and a surprisingly solid hip-hop rotation. Shortly after our arrival at 10:30 we settled into the usual chatter about music, travel, and girls. It was also the first time that I noticed that Thai folks keep their beers cold with ice cubes. There are some things I will simply never understand.

As we migrated to the neighboring reggae bar, the conversation turned to the elephant in the room: Chiang Mai’s comically early bar closing time. The city’s drinking establishments officially close at midnight. That’s right, the last call takes place at 11:40 p.m. As the clock struck twelve, the merrymaking of drunken locals and dancing Westerners melted away to reveal a ring of Thai police escorting disoriented patrons out of bars. Many partygoers, myself included, lingered outside of the shuttered watering holes to down our brewskies or snag a Thai kebab, an extremely loose approximation of its Middle Eastern counterpart. But as the clanking metal gates marked the end of the evening, it also aroused the consternation of my Thai companions. Why does the military continue to enforce laws that make no sense? Don’t they understand that this early closing time will provoke more violence and altercations? Don’t they see that people want to enjoy their parties for more than a few hours?  

“Well”, the two reasoned, “it’s probably part of Chiang Mai’s punishment.”

“Punishment for what?” I asked.

“Do you know that our city is home to the former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra?” they responded. “She had a lot of support here. The cops are definitely applying the laws much harsher here to teach us a lesson.”

“Really?” I replied. “I had no idea.”

It took me a moment to realize that I had stumbled upon a good old-fashioned conspiracy theory: Chiang Mai has been unfairly targeted by the Thai military because of its political history. Deposed in 2014 by the military junta, Shinawatra was a businesswoman who rose through the ranks of the Pheu Thai party stronghold in the north to become Prime Minister in 2011. She is of royal lineage as a former descendant of Chiang Mai’s royal Monarch, highlighting the uncomfortable schism between Thailand’s rural north and more developed south. The Pheu Thai Party emerged from the embers of the former People’s Power party after the Constitutional Court banned their political activities. Since its formation in 2001, the party has maintained a populist slant and Shinawatra drew much of her power from her home base in the north.

Although my understanding of the subsequent events is murky, early 2014 was marred with political turmoil as paralyzing talks and bloody protests became common. As the uncertainty increased, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha formally entered the picture in May 2014 and declared that the military would assume control of the government. The last four years have grown tense again. Despite the ruling NCPO’s attempts to squash pro-democracy or “redshirt” activists prior to the scheduled February 2019 vote, protests continue to be widespread. The two brothers noted that the military has grown increasingly inept and Chiang Mai continues to be the victim of both military incompetence and calculated retribution. With the former prime minister still on the lam, Chiang Mai was being unfairly targeted, they argued. The generals had dug in their heels to enforce absurd laws rather than identify proportional solutions to approachable problems.    

It was also between swigs of icy lager that I learned another disturbing sliver of Thai history. Both brothers had witnessed the bloody aftermath of Thailand’s 2003 drug war firsthand, watching drug-addicted friends perish at the hands of trigger-happy police. Fortunately, the two siblings temporarily lived with their family in Canada as the violence escalated. Many of their friends did not have that luxury. And, as the brothers noted, even in the midst of the government-sanctioned carnage, some of their friends refused to leave their “bad boy” lifestyles behind.

But let’s step back for a moment. Although many are familiar with the region’s infamous opium-producing Golden Triangle, fewer people are aware of Myanmar’s ballooning meth production in the last two decades. According to Human Rights Watch, methamphetamine use in Thailand rose 1000 percent from 1993 to 2001. And long before Duterte’s merciless drug crackdown in the Philippines, there was Thailand. In 2002, King Bhumibol Adulyadej expressed his dismay with pervasive meth use and encouraged Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to take action. His response was drastic: Thaksin declared an open season on drug dealers and pill pushers. The flood of Ya Baa, or “happy pills”, across Thailand, spurred police to adopt an “eye for an eye” approach and ruthlessly meet drug seizure and arrest quotas. Darker tales abound of the rampant extrajudicial killing of drug users and use of planted evidence. That same Human Rights Watch report notes that from February to April 2003, 2,275 people were executed by police and vigilante squads.  

Despite this spate of violence, meth use in Southeast Asia has skyrocketed. In the first quarter of 2018, Bengali authorities along Myanmar’s border seized 9 million meth pills. A growing proportion of the region’s residents consume the pink pills to drive overnight buses, toil in rice fields, and slog through other quotidian tasks. But the Thai government now entertains the opposite policy approach: decriminalization. As journalist Patrick Winn has reported, the ruling junta has resigned itself to the failure of its previous Drug War and no longer denies the mushrooming use of ya baa in the country. As a result, it continues to flirt with decriminalization. While the two brothers didn’t share their opinions on liberalization, I appreciated their willingness to recount their personal trials and tribulations during the failed 2003 campaign. It made my heart go out to the Philippines. I could only imagine young Filipino women and men trying to navigate the terrifying consequences of Duterte’s drug war in the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

And within this strange labyrinth of drug wars and military coups lay a clue to my earlier question: What’s the deal with Myanmar and Thailand relations? Why was there a growing friendship between a drug producer and a drug consumer? The answer is multilayered. According to The Diplomat, a growing Thailand – Myanmar axis has converged around shared policy interests, autocratic governance, and regional instability. Myanmar was the first government to openly praise Thailand’s military coup in 2014 and the Tatmadaw, the colloquial name for Myanmar’s army, even suggested that the Thai military had made the right decision to seize power. These comments have sent chills through ASEAN, an organization intended to spread democratic norms. Other news outlets have reported an increase in military collaboration along the northern Thai-Burmese border as the two countries combat the shapeshifting blob of rebel groups and transnational criminal organizations. And enter the good old United States. Policy analysts note that the U.S. sanctions slapped on Thailand and Myanmar have pushed both countries closer to China, the regional powerhouse with a less than stellar human rights record. With little interest in addressing the Rohingya crisis or journalistic abuse, an increasingly autocratic Beijing has stepped up its aid and support. This has allowed rampant corruption to go unchecked and local police to apply laws inconsistently. The two brothers were quick to note how you should never call the police. The rot simply runs too deep. Moreover, since assuming power, the Thai military’s ham-fisted attempts to bring order to the country and stamp out corruption have backfired more than they’ve worked.     

Thai corruption, however, rarely crosses paths with the happy-go-lucky tourist. Except in a few select instances. I experienced mine on Friday when I decided to visit Doi Soithep, a resplendent golden temple perched on the mountainsideLRG-DSC07289 an hour outside of Chiang Mai. Numerous travelers had informed me that the trip was well worth it. And yet there was a caveat. I would likely have to cough up a 500 baht fine at the new police checkpoints springing up across the city to stop Westerners on scooters. Sure enough, shortly after filling up my tank, I was flagged down by an officer, escorted to a roadside tent, and forced to pony up the cash. No one is above Thailand’s loosely applied laws, I supposed. With my ticket in hand, I soon departed the city, breathing in the fresh mountain air, rounding long turns as I climbed higher, and feeling far from the previous night’s conversation. The experience was disarmingly beautiful. After the Temples, I accompanied a Dutch couple to a local waterfall further down the mountain. We cooled off in the freezing waters and roamed dense jungle paths in search of the elusive third falls. Needless to say, as the rumbling of thunder portended a very wet descent back to Chiang Mai, we decided to end the hike early and high tail it back to our motorbikes. After leaving the grips of Chiang Mai’s caffeinated digital nomad vortexLRG-DSC07339 and soaking up drunken history lessons from locals, I was finally plunging into some genuine tourism. Now it’s time for the good stuff.    

Tourism: Chiang Mai’s Beauty and its Beast

Every traveler that arrives in Chiang Mai is greeted by a slate of amazing activities. Tourism offices offer you the chance to visit the Elephant Sanctuary, attend a Friday evening Muay Thai fight, and participate in a local cooking class. These packages provide immersive ways to experience Chiang Mai in the way UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network intended. And even as you explore the city by foot, you can gaze at shiny, spectacular golden steeples, fritter away time in artsy coffee shops covered in flowers, and aimlessly stroll through night markets laden with artisan crafts and mouth-watering eats. Like the rest of Thailand, Chiang Mai provides easy access to a joyful, cultural experience. I spent my last few days enjoying the city’s temples, grandstanding at a Muay Thai fight, and visiting the ever joyful Lanna Elephant Sanctuary. It was a welcome reprieve from my work, and I felt each activity to perfectly cap off my time in Thailand.   

I awoke one morning to an excited message from my old LBJ classmate Alyson. It turned out one of her college friends was also in Chiang Mai and she suggested we connect. Nick and I briefly met-up on Friday evening and enjoyed the local dish of Khao Soi, a delicious bowl of spicy, coconutty broth, noodles and bone-in chicken that really does not cool you down on a muggy evening. We chatted as we strolled through a fancy night market and then headed by bike to a local Muay Thai fight. The action was immediate once we sat IMG-0465.JPGdown. The blood and sweat of the young, scrappy fighters speckled the ropes as the two fighters pounded each other into submission. Three of the five fights ended in bonafide knockouts. It was my first time watching live boxing, and while I thought I would appreciate its raw physicality, I was taken aback by the sheer brutality of the scuffles. It was a spectacle that felt molded and bent to fit tourist expectations. Then there was the strange bout of the French Muay Thai Fighter who easily punched out his Thai opponent in minutes. We both decided to decompress over some late night street eats.  

My visit to the Lanna Elephant Sanctuary was the cherry on the top of my backpacking cake. Thailand is home to a significant Asian elephant population which often occupies a less than respected role in Thai society. They are exploited for tourist rides, sold to seedy circuses, or used widely in illegal logging ventures. Moreover, the ivory trade in Thailand proliferates with reports of businesses in Bangkok and Chiang Mai still dealing in the banned material. Lanna LRG-DSC07388.JPGElephant Sanctuary was one of many local elephant sanctuaries that have both sought to rescue elephants and capitalize on these gentle beasts for tourist revenue. And well, it’s worth it. I cannot repeat this enough: it is transcendental to feed bananas to elephants and wash their leathery bodies with mud. Words cannot express the joy. I cannot describe the laughter and goofiness that ensued that day as I caked mud onto an elephant’s butt and evaded their attempts to steal the entire bunch of bananas. It remains one of my trip highlights.   LRG-DSC07276

My final night in Chiang Mai was capped off with the usual. I took a relaxing jaunt through the night market with my hostel roommates, suffered a surprise neon facepaint attack, danced sweatily to techno music, and was repulsed at several hammered Australians pouring alcohol on themselves. I also tossed back some very large insects. But I must confess that I couldn’t shake the memory of an experience I had had several nights before. It was an unnerving interaction with a couple that had left a strange taste in my mouth. It also had highlighted the schism between the bright-eyed, enchanted tourist and the scrappy local tour guide.

Let me start from the beginning. I was unwinding with a group of travelers at Family Home hostel when an extremely intoxicated American wearing a Colorado baseball cap approached us. She asked us if we could give her a shot and explained that she had just been told off by her incensed Thai boyfriend who had “had enough of her” and disappeared. Out of both concern and curiosity, a fellow American and myself invited her to join us. After some nonsensical, rambling small talk, we soon learned that she was a high-powered project manager working with healthcare data and was based out of Durango, Colorado. This was also her fourth time visiting Thailand. But, soon after her boyfriend arrived (he belonged to the Karen tribe, a hill tribe located north of Chiang Mai and different from the Burmese Karen), he filled in some important blanks. He pointed out that in the past three days she had moved her flight not one, not two, but three times to the tune of $400 per flight change. He also emphasized that she desperately needed to get back to Colorado to see her family. And he lastly pointed out that for the past three mornings, she had started her days off by slugging down cups of vodka and smoking like a chimney. Through her slurred speech and drunken gaze, something became readily apparent: she loved Thailand and adored its gentle people. Like any westerner in a high-powered but miserable occupation, she felt drawn to her beautiful and sweet boyfriend who she had met as a trekking guide three years before. And deep in her heart, she just knew she would grow to love the Thai culture if she could only work up the courage to move. I was briefly reminded of the White Masai. Under the spell of her inebriated haze, she sketched out an idyllic future living in Thailand.

Her Thai boyfriend strongly disagreed. His frustration sought to cut through her misconceptions and reveal the cultural chasm between them. While not as persecuted as the Burmese Karen, the Thai Karen are some of the most economically marginalized in Thailand. His upbringing was far from easy, and his work as a tour guide helped pay the bills and support his family. Through broken English, I sensed his astonishment with the choices his wasted girlfriend continued to make. While my American companion, also from Colorado coincidentally, feigned interest in comprehending the woman’s existential struggle, I watched the man descend into deeper confusion. My bemusement soon transformed into indignation and then sadness. Despite his desire to have a better life, potentially in the States, he seemed to find genuine distress in his girlfriend’s desire to leave a salary and move to Thailand. How could she do such a thing? Why did she have such romantic machinations of poverty? The woman dismissed his ability to find a job in the United States, only driving the stake in further. She could only see her own privilege and agency in the decision but seemed to laugh off the possibility that he had any of his own.    

And then I recalled another encounter I had witnessed earlier in Chiang Mai. Like a missing puzzle piece, I realized the drunken couple was the living, breathing embodiment of a commentary I had heard from a restaurant owner the day before. Originally from Chile, the cafe proprietor had lived and worked in Thailand for nearly a decade with his Thai wife. That afternoon, while I worked remotely, I listened to him recount a story about a deluded American friend. The friend had gathered his life in the United States and moved it to Thailand in pursuit of adventurous romance. The man had assumed he would find his soulmate and his purpose in the Land of Smiles, a tropical paradise steeped in carefree attitudes and the world’s kindest people. After all, the Chilean owner remarked, his friend’s previous trips to Thailand had left him with an abiding sense of tranquility and bliss. Wouldn’t he be successful?   

Wrong. With a biting dose of real-talk, the Chilean shattered his friend’s delusions. “I explained to him ‘Do you really think that people here are free? Do you assume that people are just casually nice and warm exclusively out of choice?’ ‘No’, I told him. ‘You’re an outsider and you have the privilege of not being Thai. You don’t have to experience what they do. Many of them are kind and open because they might not have a choice. Because if they speak out they might be imprisoned or even worse. Because they have a limited range of options to select from. Life here is not as lovely as you think. You think Thailand is free but it’s not.’”

The Traveler’s Dilemma

This represents the crux of the traveler’s problem in Thailand. Hell, it might be the issue when traveling through any tourism-driven, authoritarian country. While I easily became enamored with the joy of bathing genteel elephants, experiencing the freedom of riding motorbikes across islands or embracing the rush of the party on Khao San Road, I was, and will always remain, an outsider. I am endowed with a specific set of privileges that the ordinary Thai person does not have. While the digital nomads glowingly rave of Thailand’s charms, they can avoid the corruption, the politics, and the poverty that many Thai confront daily. Although the indulgent backpacker can partake in the psychedelic pleasures of the full moon party, she will likely never encounter the painful consequences of a merciless drug war waged in the name of addiction. Our reality is not theirs.

I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t travel to Thailand. Far from it. But I am suggesting that you take your joy with a grain of salt, and your intoxication with a healthy dose of sobriety. I deeply loved my time in Thailand. But I remain conflicted about my role as an engaged participant versus outside observer. How should I navigate this space? Can you do both? As I conclude my time in Vietnam, this tension continues to rankle me. Regardless, Vietnam has proven to be a whole other can of worms entirely. More on that in my next dispatch.   

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