The last time I visited Thailand, it was with an ISV (International Student Volunteers) tour group. ISV is a great program and I probably wouldn't have gotten the guts to travel to SE Asia at all if not for this program. However, there is a huge difference between traveling with a group and backpacking on your own itinerary (or lack thereof). Fortunately, many countries in SE Asia, especially Thailand, will bend over backwards for foreigners because their economy is so tourism-based. We have had many positive encounters with people here who honestly want to help us get from place to place, which counters my original Western perspective that everyone in developing countries is out to rip you off. However, there are always safety measures to take. Some major pointers for a first-timer:
- Never let go of your bags or their openings.
- If you ride on a bus or train, try to keep your luggage with you as opposed to letting staff put it in under carriage storage. Many times, people (planned or unplanned) will raid through your things.
- If you are alone or in a crowded area, it's a smart idea to wear a money belt. If you don't want to get caught wearing the brighter-than-neon tourist symbol around your hips, then cargo pockets are another solid option for you to store your cash, as they are less easy to pick pocket.
- Always travel with a lock and key. Many hostels will provide lockers but rarely have locks.
- If you take transportation (cab, bus, ferry) without a ticket price, confirm the cost of the ride before you take off.
When all else fails, use common sense, ask another foreigner, or follow your gut and you should be fine.
My stay in Chiang Mai has had me utilizing all my knowledge of safety I could draw on, but I also got to let my guard down and join in on the culture more than I have before on a typical vacation abroad. Chiang Mai is a beautiful city with lots of color, life and culture. Home to the cheapest massages around and with breakfast venues on every corner, this place is a paradise to foreigners and Thai people alike for its services as well as its industry. Chiang Mai also has a plethora of Buddhist temples all around the city, which makes it kind of a love child between a beachy-style, San Fran wannabe and a Thai cultural hotspot.
Basically, I'm in love.
One note-able remark for staying in any city in Thailand (especially the big ones like Bangkok and Chiang Mai), would be to avoid elephant street begging. When you see these guys walking around the street asking for food and money, it is safe to assume they are unhealthy, stressed out and scared. Please do NOT support their business. If you really want to support the tourism industry here by seeing elephants, visit the Elephant Nature Park just outside Chiang Mai. They are a non-profit which supports elephants living free of abuse, and you can have the rare opportunity to see them in a large habitat, feed them, and bathe them in the river. By the end, you will probably even be besties. That's a MUCH more realistic and sustainable way to help our big friends and the Thai community, don'tchathink?
Our hostel in Chiang Mai has also been note-able. A Little Bird Guesthouse is amazing for its location and price (about $3 a night!), but aside from things being at the bare bare essentials (which is manageable), we had a rude awakening this morning when a new guest moved rooms at 7:30am because the one she was settled into wasn't satisfactory. Thus, I feel it beneficial to anyone reading this post to check out some tips on hostel guest etiquette:
- Do NOT wake the travelers. If it is 7:30am. If it is 2pm. If they are hungover. If they are jet-lagged. Do NOT wake them. Guests are paying to, above all else, sleep.
- Do not leave the doors of your hostel room open of there are guests inside who are sleeping/changing/picking their nose. Guests are, secondly, paying for some sense of privacy.
- Only take up the amount of space you are paying for. Got a private room? Throw your clothes and have a dance party. But if you paid for one bed, don't spread your things out with hopes nobody will show up. Odds are they will and then you'll have to go through the Shameful Bed Clearing ritual many backpackers are familiar with.
That's all for now. Tomorrow we are planning on heading out into the mountains for some more temple-seeing. then to Cambodia the next day!
Take care, wherever you may be!
Laura and Cheengu