All the tourists are in Chiang Mai right now because they think that Bangkok is some kind of war zone. They congregate in the center of town, beneath neon lights, covered in glow paint. They're downing buckets of mixed drinks with other farrang (foreigners), dancing the night away to the Billboard Top 40. It looks like a club out of England or Australia. They come all this way to party the same.
My friend, Brian, has been living in Thailand for five years now. In that time, he learned to speak fluent Thai, and made friends with some really great locals. Last night, we hopped on our motorbikes and drove out to the fringes of Thai civilization. Down hillsides and winding roads, we found ourselves at a local restaurant and karaoke bar surrounded by rice patties.
"These people are like my family," said Brian's friend Nooh, who owns his own bike company in the center of Chiang Mai, "I brought you here to sample real Northern Thai food."
Spread in front of us was a plethora of dishes and spicy chilli sauces. Nooh showed me how to break the fried catfish and garlic apart, which was so flavorful and crisp that we could eat the bones. He taught me to roll and flatten sticky rice between my fingers, then use it to scoop up various pastes and vegetables.
We ate and drank and then drank some more. Served by a thin woman with a kind expression, our glasses were constantly being refilled. In Thailand, they drink beers like Leo, Chang, and Singha over large chunks of nam kang (ice). Seated on bamboo benches, we devoured our meal, approaching drunkenness, as the sun set over the shimmering rice patties. Brian and I were the only farrang.
We recalled a group of tourists on motorbikes that had passed us earlier that day. The men drove through Chiang Mai, flicking off Thai motorists as they passed. We agreed that the tourists had rejected all that was Thai, and their behavior was downright offensive. In Thailand, this is a daily occurrence. It certainly gives foreigners a bad reputation.
We discussed the concept of Thai social etiquette, and how so many tourists fail to acknowledge it. Nooh noted how a lot of foreigners are afraid to ask questions (or learn any language), and thereby stick to their own kind instead. Tourists bring their own culture to backpacker enclaves, and miss all the real Thailand happening around them.
Also earlier that day, after encountering the obscene motor bikers, we had pulled up to a service station to fill our tire. As Brian conversed with the shop owner in Thai, they were intrusively interrupted by two Caucasian women who failed to notice that there was a conversation taking place. The women wore brightly colored elephant parachute pants and grasped folders and notebooks against their chests.
"We want to offer you free English lessons," they interjected, looking at one another with pride as if saw one another as martyrs, making the ultimate sacrifice of visiting Thailand to share their own language and culture with the people of this nation.
"That's cool," I interjected, "I suppose that you're also learning to speak Thai as well?"
"No!" they laughed, as if my suggestion was beyond ridiculous, "We're only here for ten weeks!"
When visiting other countries, please keep in mind - this thing called "cultural exchange" – it goes both ways. You don't have to learn how to speak fluent Thai, however, the learning of just a few key words is greatly appreciated by the people who live there. Just that fact that you're trying shows effort and consideration. It's a matter of demonstrating compassion and showing respect. It is a matter of learning and asking questions, while acknowledging locals by respecting their culture the way it exists. Keep open minds and embrace the unknown.
Night came over Thailand as the karaoke began. We sang and laughed along with the staff, a little in English but mostly in Thai. Brian sang by himself, then Nooh and I sang a duet, and it wasn't long before we were all singing together, falling and laughing along with Nooh's friends.
Four hours later, we finally left. We'd polished off an entire case of double sized beers, plus an extravagant feast of Northern style Thai food. Other guests wai'd and waved us goodbye. Our bill for the night was about nine hundred baht, or ten dollars a person. Party on Thailand. What a country.
- Kat Vallera, NomadiKat Travel Media
Author of "Around the World in 80 J's"