Stickman Readers' Submissions July 29th, 2009

A Tourist’s Perspective

I’ve noticed quite a few comments and submissions on this site lately that claim Thailand is fast becoming a less preferable destination for tourists and a worse place to live for foreigners from the West.

I would like to discuss this from a tourist’s perspective. What is it that has made Thailand such a popular destination and has this changed and in that case how has it changed? I’ll try to outline what factors I think are behind the success of Thailand’s tourist industry and then take a stab at each one and see how each factor has changed as I see things. It’s a highly subjective approach based on my 11 annual or bi-annual visits ranging from 3 to 8 weeks respectively over the last 7 years.

He Clinic Bangkok

What has set Thailand apart is, in my opinion, its combined strengths of several different factors. Other locations might have one or even a few of these strengths but Thailand has been much more complete and therefore a preferred choice as a holiday destination. These are the factors I come to think of:

  • The climate
  • The food
  • The level of development
  • The friendliness of Thai people
  • The security
  • The affordability

And last but not least:

  • The naughty nightlife

All of these factors except for the naughty nightlife are what all, or at least the vast majority of, tourists look for when they go on a holiday. And many going to Thailand decide to do so based on the naughty nightlife as well and for those that do it tend to outweigh concerns about the other factors.

CBD bangkok

The climate

This is of obvious importance. I’m from Scandinavia and I can tell you that our winters suck big fat horse cocks, to put it mildly. During the traditional high season in Thailand the weather is pretty much guaranteed to be sunny, warm (cool, those who live in Thailand would say, but warm for us tourists) and nice. So what do people in Scandinavia do during this period? They go to Thailand of course.

There’s been a massive shift in the time of year many people choose to holiday. At least in Scandinavia there has. Before people had their vacation during our summer in June-August and vacationed at home or somewhere around the Mediterranean. This is still common. But today more and more people find that our summers are actually pretty good with a nice temperature and daylight up to 20 hours per day (24 in the remote north, actually). Why escape from that? Our winters however, since they suck hairy pig balls, are worth escaping from. One in twenty Swedes went to Thailand in 2008. That says something.

The climate is one thing that can’t be said to have changed for Thailand as a tourist destination. It was great ten years ago and five years ago also and it’s still great today. And unless effects of global warming fuck up our climate globally it will remain great for the foreseeable future. But good climate is also one feature that’s quite easy to find elsewhere. You don’t build a tourist industry on good climate alone. Somalia looks pretty warm… See what I mean?

wonderland clinic

The food

Thai food is good and it’s popular in the West, that much is clear. But while it might have been a novelty or some kind of experience to go to Thailand and have Thai food a decade ago it’s not so anymore. Why? Because Thai restaurants have sprung up like mushrooms back home, that’s why. I doubt many urban or suburban families have more than a five minutes drive to their closest Thai restaurant. Also, the quality of the Thai food is often better back home, because the produce is of a higher quality, or the standards imposed by authorities on restaurateurs are stricter, or the dishes are altered according to farang tastes.

Then there is the western food available in Thailand. And while there are real gems among the restaurants I’d still claim the quality is not that high. Especially not if the restaurant isn’t western owned. Western owned establishments can be great. I had a Cajun rib-eye steak in Bourbon Street and it was as good as if I’d had it in the US. The burger in Shenanigans likewise. The club sandwich at Bullys also. And then there are the high-end restaurants in fancy hotels.

But try going to a Thai owned place, even one posing as an Italian eatery, and order a pasta Bolognese (one of the best pre-drinking-binge dishes you can have, BTW) and see what you get. Overcooked spaghetti with watery ketchup and chopped garlic and possibly a few bits of what might be boiled pork. Yummy!

And what’s with the bread? The Cambodians know how to bake bread. The Laotians know how to bake bread. In both cases it took a French colonial power to teach them, but still. The Thais have one kind of bread and it’s those squares of toast you buy sliced and ready. Good for a grilled cheese sandwich but it’s not really real bread.

But OK, now I’m being overly negative. Thai food is delicious and decent western food can be had quite easily in Thailand. So while I don’t see that going to Thailand for the food makes much sense, in the way that you might go to Italy or France on a culinary trip, I also don’t see that the food should in any way discourage you. But the novelty of Thai food is not what it once was.

The level of development

Thailand is third world aiming for first world status. I don’t see that Thailand will ever be able to get to first world standards, at least not in my lifetime. There is way too large a portion of the people to lift out of poverty and the standards of so much infrastructure just doesn’t compare at all to the West. Of course it could be done, but I just don’t think it will be.

That said, there is a world of difference between Thailand and, say, Cambodia or Laos. It’s easier to find hotels and other facilities that you feel comfortable with. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to the average Stickmanite, who for sure could challenge Cambodia without second thoughts, but what about charter tourists? Who would take their family including small kids to Cambodia when Thailand is right there and has its house in order, seemingly.

You can get many internationally recognized goods quite easily. And sometimes you just want to enjoy the familiarity of wolfing down a Whopper at Burger King and then it’s nice to know you can go do that. And not that I care much for shopping myself but for those that do there are places to go shopping and lots of stuff to buy.

I’d say the level of development in Thailand is generally just right for a tourist destination. If it was more highly developed it would be more expensive and if it was less developed it might be too Spartan for many tourists. Some places might have lost some of their charm and I can certainly understand the sad feeling some people get when they visit an island they used to view as a secluded paradise and find a behemoth resort hotel packed with charter tourists instead.

So, for some, Thailand might already be over developed and destroyed. But for the bulk of tourists I’d say it’s developed to just the right level today.

The friendliness of Thai people

OK, here we’re on a topic where I can say I’ve personally noticed that all is not well. I must say that I feel less welcome now than I did when I first visited, in 2002. I have speculated what the reason for this can be. Is it simply that I see behind the veneer much easier today and realise a smile isn’t always an honest smile? Or is it that I am a different kind of tourist today, one who has increasingly gravitated towards the naughty nightlife and therefore encounters more dregs now than I used to encounter before? Or is it that, since I’ve gravitated towards the naughty nightlife, that the Thais look on me differently and with less respect? Or is it that the Thais attitude towards foreigners in general has actually changed and changed for the worse?

A little from column A and a little from column B would be my spontaneous answer. It’s probably a combination of things. But I do feel that Thai people in general have become less accommodating in only these few years. Especially among service staff I have noticed this unfortunate development. Strangely I haven’t noticed it from the ladies of the night myself, although I have heard that attitudes have worsened there too so maybe I have just been lucky.

But hotel employees, waiters, store clerks and other service staff I find less welcoming now. The wais are gone completely and the smiles are on their way out. Now, I don’t need for people to wai me but the smiles are kind of nice. And the famed friendliness seems to me to be diminishing.

But this does not apply everywhere. Most people are still nice and friendly. For every disappointing encounter there is at least one really nice encounter, and many more neutral ones. I can’t say that the Thais are not still a generally friendly and tolerant people, because I think that they are.

Still there is something I can’t really put my finger on. I just feel less welcome today than I used to do. Many times I feel like I’m tolerated more than an actually welcome guest.

The security

This is the big one as far as I see it. More than any other factor Thailand’s reputation as a safe destination that has made it such a hit with tourists. And more destructive than any other factor would be the insight that Thailand is not safe after all.

If you read ten articles in Western media about Thailand five years ago they’d all be about how wonderful this or that location in Thailand is, what adventures there are to be had and accounts of someone’s amazing trip to Thailand. Today at least half of them are about crimes or scams or nasty accidents in Thailand, where Western tourists are the victims. The notion that Thailand is safe from crime is being challenged.

Still, we know that Thailand remains safe-ish. I mean, it’s not Colombia or Brazil. You can’t completely disregard the idea that you might be robbed or attacked at night but it’s still possible to walk home at night in most places. Given the massive numbers of tourists that go to Thailand you have to expect some casualties amongst them. So while I’d agree that crime is on the rise and that this is worrying, I’d not say it’s rampant. Not yet.

But it’s worrying that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise to begin with. It signals a shift in the mindset of people. And with the current economic woes it stands to reason that more and more people will be on the margins and that crime will be an option for increasing numbers, or that criminals will be increasingly desperate and dangerous.

What’s perhaps even worse is the political stability and the possibility of these reds and yellows fighting it out for real one day. My limited view of things tells me this is by no means over. We know what the uniting power in Thailand is and we know that power will inevitably disappear or change. The consequences cannot be known though, but they may be dire.

I think that for now this is more on the minds of foreigners living in Thailand than on tourists. I’ve heard several smart and experienced people say that you need an exit strategy to live in Thailand now. That if things seem ready to explode they will get out and wait out the developments outside of Thailand’s borders, that they do not intend to take the chance and risk leaving too late. And just the implication that there is a “too late” and what this “too late” might mean is rather chilling.

But I do think that tourists are less aware of this. Yes, they know about the airport closures and this has probably scared off quite a few. But that Thailand is a cinder-keg that might one day blow up I think is not common knowledge. Myself I just barely understand the frictions in Thai society and I have close friends living and working there and read everything I can get my hands on about Thailand in the international press. Most tourists I would say have a more limited view. For now, that is.

To sum this up I don’t think that Thailand is seen by prospective tourists as a dangerous place today. I think the general opinion of Thailand is still that it’s quite safe. But unfortunately I think that there is every reason to fear that this might change.

The affordability

Here’s one that’s already hit the tourist industry. Several different factors seem to conspire to make Thailand less affordable. The airfares to get there have increased for many visitors. The currency exchange rates have made the Thai baht more expensive for many as well. The prices in Thailand, the inflation in Thailand’s tourist industry if you will, have made things more expensive in terms of the amounts of baht needed to go there.

The airfares are not much to debate. Yes, Thailand has a public airline and could theoretically subsidise fares to boost tourism. But in reality it’s one of many airlines in a market that sets its prices according to market rules and tinkering with this is probably not the best of ideas. We’ll probably see somewhat cheaper prices in the near future since oil has come down from its peak levels and since there will likely be less people flying. But this will be temporary and in the medium term future I think we’ll have to face the fact that cheap airfares are history. My prediction.

The currency exchange rates can be a bitch. I got 500 baht for 100 Swedish Crowns in January 2008. One year later I got 380 baht for the same amount. So I lost about 25% of my purchasing power from one year to the next. So did a friend of mine who works in Bangkok and gets his salary in Swedish Crowns. That sure sucks.

But what can you do about it? Nothing. Be happy when your currency is strong and plan for the fact that it might not last. All in all I still don’t think there are solid underlying reasons to fear a continued strengthening of the Thai baht. I rather expect my own currency to bounce back up against the baht. But then, I’m no currency rates expert.

The prices in Thailand. This is the most interesting thing to discuss. Have they risen? Yes they most certainly have. I’d say the inflation in the tourist related businesses has been way higher than in other areas. Tourism boomed for many consecutive years and increased prices didn’t mean less business so why not increase them? It seemed smart as long as the boom lasted.

Now it remains to be seen if the businesses deriving their income from tourism in Thailand realise that they will have to lower prices to #1 fight for their share of a diminished customer base in the short run and #2 attract new customers in the long run. Some will get this and some will not. Those that get it first will survive and those that don’t will not.

For me Thailand is still affordable. It’s cheaper than at home and cheaper than many other places where I might holiday. It’s less affordable than it used to be and not exactly a bargain any longer but the cost does not yet discourage me from going. However I can see that a family with kids would find it increasingly hard to justify spending the money it would take them to go on a charter trip to Thailand. The diminished affordability has most certainly cost Thailand lots of visitors.

The naughty nightlife

The naughty nightlife is not a factor all tourists consider but since I am one of those that do consider it I feel I can speak about it with some authority. What’s the status of the nightlife in Thailand and how does it compare to any alternatives?

It’s still great I would say. It’s a-rockin’ an’ a-rollin’. My last visit was in February and I had a swinging time. The bars were great and the girls I fell in love with and who fell in love with me were great. The beer was cold. The music a bit too loud. The mood was high.

Yes, it’s more expensive today; the eating, the drinking and the amorous nocturnal activities also. But first of all it’s still pretty damn good value for money. Second you get what you will be hard pressed to find at all in most other places no matter how much money you shell out there. There are alternatives but there are actually no real competitors at the same level of the game.

Onto the attitudes. Some say they’re lousy with greedy girls who want something for nothing and abuse you for no reason at all. I honestly didn’t notice this on any of my last few visits. I do notice the bullshit and the lies and games that I didn’t understand on my first visits but I attribute this more to changes in me than in the attitude of the girls.

The nightlife is actually one area where I think Thailand will continue to excel. As long as there’s a naughty nightlife and it’s at all possible to visit Thailand people will come for it. Guaranteed. The ladies of the night constitute a greater lure on foreigners (OK, foreign men) than anything the TAT could come up with.

Now, I understand that some of you who live in Thailand and are married and want a normal life there are not too thrilled about this. But look at it from our perspective. Think about all us single Western men who work in the West and have no realistic opportunity to move to Thailand and who do not want, or can’t get, a woman back home. Think about us!

Of course we want to come to Thailand and enjoy what’s there to enjoy. We don’t care so much about currency exchange rates or the gem scam or riots in the streets or the swine flu. So long as the bars are open and the beer is cold and the silver poles are tightly hugged, we’re happy as can be. We’ll continue to come. Year after year.

And if we should happen to save Thailand’s tourism industry in the process, all the better.


Stickman's thoughts:

This is far and away the most balanced and fair analysis on the state of Thailand I have read recently.

nana plaza