For the past three weeks, I have had the pleasure of taking off my teaching cap and putting on my tourist shorts and flip-flops. My parents came to visit and it was so much fun being with them as they experienced Thailand for the first time. From amazing floating markets outside of Bangkok to beautiful sunsets on the beach in Phuket, we got the full tourist experience. It is strange, but the terms “tourist” and “tourist-y” have some pretty negative connotations, especially among young people, like myself, living abroad. The term is often used to put down any activity that seems too mainstream or not part of the “authentic” Thai experience. While it is great to try and live the “authentic” Thai experience (I am enjoying life on a mine in rural Thailand!), there is also something to be said about the importance of being a tourist and doing “tourist-y” things.
Being a tourist is a different and very important travel experience. I did not come to Thailand as a tourist, I came to teach. I started teaching within the first week and a half of being here and, while I certainly got to do some fun things, I did not get to really be a tourist until later. As a tourist, you are not travelling for work, for the advancement of any sort of agenda, or to “make an impact” in any way. You are going for pleasure and for the excitement of just experiencing a new culture. This is so important for so many reasons. Contrary to popular belief, people from other countries around the world do not always “need our help.” Westerners, Americans especially, often feel like the only way to go to a foreign country outside of the Western world is to go as a volunteer, missionary, or a teacher. I know this might sound weird coming from someone who is in Thailand as a teacher, but just hear me out. While there is nothing wrong with travelling as a volunteer, missionary, or teacher, sometimes it is best to go to a new place without any specific goal in mind. Go and be a tourist. By just letting go of your pre-conceived notions of a certain country and just enjoying a new place (the food, the music, the views, the customs, etc.) you are letting yourself be a guest in someone else’s home. Thai people love to share their culture, but many farang (the word for “foreigners”) are too caught up in their own narrative of “saving the world” to listen. Real tourism is listening. Real tourism is being willing to “rip up your cool card” and jump in to a new place. That being said, here are some tips for being a good tourist.
Try to speak Thai!
Thai is a very difficult language for foreigners to master, but Thais love it when people try to say a few words and phrases. By just learning a few words like the ones for “hello” and “thank you” and phrases like the very popular mai bpen rai (its like hakuna matata, no big deal, and you’re welcome wrapped into one phrase) you show the Thai people you interact with that you actually do want to learn more about their culture. Also, knowing a little smattering of Thai words and phrases goes a long way in getting discounts (I got a pretty big discount for a boat tour in Bangkok just by speaking a little broken Thai).
Make friends with drivers.
As a tourist in Thailand, you will spend a lot of time in taxis, vans, busses, and maybe even planes. While you probably won’t become besties with the bus driver or the pilot, you will have the chance to speak to taxi and van drivers (especially in Bangkok where the the traffic makes for some pretty long taxi rides). I have learned so much about everyday life in Thailand just by talking to taxi drivers. Some speak pretty good English, others don’t speak any at all, but that’s where an acting degree and google translate comes in handy!
Haggle! But don’t overdo it.
Haggling is an essential part of the marketplace experience. While you never want to pay full price that pair of knock-off Nike’s that has caught your eye, keep in mind that people are trying to feed their families. Haggling is an art and it is super fun to negotiate in broken Thai and in broken English (Tinglish), but try not to be too over zealous. Remember that you will be spending infinitely less money than you would at home for these goods (especially for clothing) so try not to be too cheap. These people are trying to make a living, so just be mindful of that and haggle respectfully.
These tourist tips apply to places outside of Thailand and there are many more that I could mention! If you have any questions about travelling or being a tourist in Thailand, feel free to contact me!
Go forth and be a tourist!