Looking back on the five weeks we spent in Thailand, it seems like we visited two separate countries. The northern part of Thailand is rich with with mountainous terrain, jungles, cool weather, and a strong sense of spirituality, where as the southern islands have gained a reputation as a party destination. This has obviously caused much polarization among travelers looking for something different, even though both experiences are an integral part of modern world travel.
I am not one to discount a destination, however, based on the thoughts of other travelers. No one sees the world exactly the same as anyone else, so why should we judge and entire region on the opinions of others? This is why I refused then, and refuse now, to pass off the Thai islands as being devoid of reality. If one is patient enough, open minded enough, and daring enough, it is all around. Even in a place so centered around foreigners. After all, culture is not only defined by its people, but by its environments, its wildlife, and its climate as well.
The islands we visited were ridiculously beautiful. They were more tropical than any other tropical place I have been in my life. Lush palm-lined coastline, daunting yet comforting karst rocks, silken white sands…everything you think of when you think of beach perfection. (Though I’m a little baby and thought the water was a liiiiiittle cold. Yeah, I know.) These two weeks we spent here were both relaxing and exciting. Easy transit. Inexpensive lifestyle. Stunning environment. Each location had its own uniqueness. We attended a new years eve full moon party, drank Chang at the traveler bars, and ate western food (obviously, for us). We took full part in the westerner traveler experience. And enjoyed every grain of sand.
However, I do agree with a lot of the negative sentiments about the islands as well. Tourism has completely taken over the area, making it hard to find out what island life is really like. We were always surrounded by other travelers (mostly Aussies) and were constantly attacked by touts. The party scene at night sometimes ruins the serenity you expect when on a tropical island. The villages bustle with both local shops and international chains. All put together, there was not a clear representation of the country and its people.
Koh Jam, which was by far the most untouched of all five of our southern beach stops, did have more of a tourist vibe than the feel of a real Thai life. But, behind the beachfront huts and beyond the coconut groves, Thailand exists in the village of Baan Koh Jam on the non-beach side of the island. If you take a short bike ride through the palms on the red muddy pathways, you’ll arrive in town where kids are just getting out of school. On our bike ride to Baan Koh Jam, kids played soccer along the side of the road, some played games in the shade of the buildings. Koh Jam residents walked shop to shop, buying food for their families. Only a few other foreigners sat on the steps of small boutiques sipping cold drinks. No touts in sight, no tour groups in sight, no English being yelled down the road. It was a breath of fresh air to see this calmer world existing right across the water from Koh Phi Phi. Because the sand was not as white and the water was not as turqouise, Koh Jam is not on a the major tourism trail. However, Thai culture persists here, making it just as special than any beach.
Although Koh Pha Ngan, the island made famous by its full moon parties, is a major destination for partying young travelers, it still doesn’t take much effort to see beyond the beach parties. Literally, its right there. Just walk down the road lined with local shops instead of speeding by them on a scooter. Spend time at the night market instead of only jumping between the beach-side resorts. Talk with the people who run your guesthouse and learn who they are.
Even though the Thai islands have exploded in popularity amongst Western tourism,it does not mean that all sense of self has disappeared. Every traveler chooses how to spend their time in each destination. Not all have time to venture off a defined path, not all have the desire. But its unfair to judge a place without having given it chance to open up to you and show you whats behind the walls of its resorts.