Six Days in Siam




Before leaving for Thailand I was interested to see how my wife SiuYing would react to visiting another country for the very first time. Like most Chinese people she dreamt of visiting foreign shores and becoming one of the few to have travelled outside their homeland. Nowadays of course, many Chinese travel overseas regularly, but the perception still prevails within the Chinese psyche.


We chose Thailand simply because it was cheap and readily available locally. Whilst being a country I had always wanted to visit, I would not normally have considered doing this within a Chinese tour group. I had experienced these groups twice before on two trips to Beijing, and they give you a whirlwind tour of sights and commission sales, without allowing personal time to explore by yourself or indulge in evening entertainment. Our local tour operator was offering 6 days fully inclusive in Thailand for only Y1, 330 RMB, as opposed to the simple return flight fee of Y2, 200 = quite a difference. Therefore it was an obvious choice to take the tour, which also included a Thai visa for my wife as part of the package deal.


However, the real reason for this or a similar trip was to aid my wife*s application for a UK visa next year. 99.9% of applications by Chinese citizens are automatically rejected immediately (Unless for study, work, or for wealthy clients). Our being married will eventually be a factor, but not until next year and after 3-years of marriage 每 then they may put us into the 0.1% of people they will actually consider. It really is that bad! I had discovered by accident and good fortune that having visited another country 每 and returned to China, greatly increase the chances of a British visa application being approved. Note that having been allowed a Thai visa, Siu Ying has now also been approved once to leave China, and she did return of course.


Our time in Thailand had been very hectic, comprising of days full of places to go, things to see, and the ubiquitous commission sales opportunities. She greatly enjoyed the holiday and we shared some special moments of course. However, far too many times I found myself wondering where Thailand was hiding? Our tour was conducted in Cantonese, as all but one of our party spoke Cantonese (Four did not speak Mandarin), the local Thai people we met spoke Cantonese, or Mandarin on the few occasions they did not. The food was all Cantonese. Even things like the cultural show had Chinese songs and were compared in Chinese language. Therefore the only immediate signs to suggest we were not actually still in China were the banknotes and coins, and signposts in English and Thai. Otherwise it was very hard for me to tell the difference!


I had not been expecting such a comprehensive Chinese gloss spread throughout our stay, to the point where everywhere we went was also full of Chinese tour parties: The beaches, the shows, the hotels, the activities and sight-seeing were 95% composed of Chinese people. Regards this particular trip I don*t have a problem with that, and in fact think it was positive in many respects, especially for the Chinese of our party. But I must temper this by asking again, ※Where is Thailand


This reflected in the way my wife reacted to the holiday, as I have myself in the past to many destinations I have crossed off my worldwide list of places to go: &Been there, seen it, got the tee-shirt* etc; where to next? Therefore it came as no surprise to me when she stated that whilst the holiday was great, she didn*t want to visit the country again. When I pressed her to explain all she said was that Thailand was &crazy*. This is a reflection of the tour as a Chinese group of course, as we were shielded from the real country for virtually our entire visit.


I do want to return, but next time as an independent traveller. For instance, there are only three things I want to see in Bangkok: The floating market (Early mornings at week-ends only), the massive street market (Week-ends only), and the weirdo street started by hippies and misfits in the 60*s, and now renowned as a den of iniquity 每 from which Bangkok gained it*s notorious name as a major worldwide travel destination. A couple of days should do all that and leave us time to explore the real nightlife. So next time that is what I will do, and also catch up with my Siamese ex girlfriend Yupa along the way.


I would like to drop into Phuket for a night, simply to say I have been there. Leisure around Krabi Islands for a while, then explore the north of the country 每 the ancient capital of Chang Mei, ancient relics near Yupa*s home of Lop Buri, and head on up to visit some ethnic villages and the infamous Bridge over the river Kwai. Fairly close by is a temple famous for having Tigers wandering around, and to me that is a must-do! All this would mean doing things local at times, and maybe we can work this with my dear friend Jim for next Chinese New Year. Let*s hope so. Of course, all this infers I can talk Siu Ying into going back. She on the other hand is quite keen to visit Malaysia and in company with our dear friend Stephanie 每 so let*s see what works out. My ideal would be to take 6-months out and do a regional circle: The Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam 每 one country I seriously want to visit.


As for Siu Ying, she has obviously gotten the travel bug and wants more in the future. However I do feel that next time she needs to be exposed naturally to the culture, and not as in this trip, looking at it from the inside of a goldfish bowl.


Jim was perfectly correct when he told me Thailand is as crazy a place as China 每 just in a different way.


From my personal experiences I have found that foreigners can either cope with China, or can*t. There is not a lot of middle ground if you are here for more than a tour to scratch the surface. I love it! However I am also aware other do not, and one of my closest friends couldn*t wait to leave 每 she found China so baffling and confusing.


With this in mind I would therefore recommend that any Westerners looking to holiday in the Orient try Thailand first. To begin with, they are very used to foreign visitors, and as tourism forms a major part of the Thai economy, they are well ahead of China. In support of this the locals normally speak many languages, and have learnt to smile and make a sale in a nice way.


Typically British people like to take a vacation in Spain 每 simply because the Spanish are very good at providing what they want. This is very true of the Balearic Islands: Ibiza, Mallorca, and Menorca; and also the Canaries or mainland Spanish resorts like Malaga etc. If this is your thing, but you want an oriental and culturally diverse take on it, then simply go to Thailand, you will not be disappointed. Like Spain, Thailand also has a deep cultural heritage spanning centuries. So if you get fed up with fish and chips on the beach, or beer at the nightclubs; there are many options for alternative sight-seeing.


Cultural Differences


The Thai and Chinese people have much in common, with their religious beliefs being quite compatible. For instance; Canton (My part of China) and Siam (The name ordinary Thai people still use for their Countries name), both follow Buddhist teachings of one type or another. I saw the same effigies in Thailand as I do in Canton. They are probably Taoist (Daoist) rather than Buddhist, but these can become quite technical distinctions to the unknowing. What is immediately evident is that Thailand has a long and unbroken religious system of belief, whereas in China this has been interrupted throughout 2 and a half millennia by first the whims of Emperors, and later by political doctrines.


Conversely, Thailand has been allowed to evolve culturally and religiously almost uninterrupted by the various empires that have come and gone. Most notable would be the more recent Khmer Empire, The Dali Empire (Yunnan, China), and The Yue Empire (Ancient Cantonese-Viet). You can read a little about the latter as it pertains to the history of China, as seen from outside of the current model of Chinese history here.  This mix also includes influences from Burma (Myanmar), currently a modern reclusive army state, which was for long periods of history one of the most important regional powers.


Therefore the first cultural difference is that Thailand has continued to grow and develop its religion, whereas China has suffered periods of growth, stagnation, and sometimes oppression. This is echoed in Thai architecture, which can be breathtaking!


The second major difference would appear to be that of social conduct and interactions at a personal level. Let us begin with Thai massage. It is typically the same as Chinese massage, but differs in the fact that Thai masseuse are exceptionally well trained and understand a body extremely well. I mentioned this with their treatment of my back complaint, which the Siamese dealt with by working on my feet plus ankle and knee joints. It was excellent therapy, and worked immediately. Chinese seem to have seen the training manual cover, but not finished reading beyond the preface by general comparison (Tina and Number 51 excepted).


In both countries, and perhaps contrary to your immediate thoughts, sex was not on the menu. Let me assure you that sometimes sex is on the menu, and is called &Extra Service* in both Countries. However, the proportion of girls in Thailand that offer &Extra Service* is far greater than in China. Therefore in China, just like in UK, if you want a masseuse for sex, then you go to a particular place and ask for a particular girl. In this respect Thailand differs, you either go to a place for massage, or to a different place for sex. This mimics an underlying physiological difference; in that for Thai people sex is a normal part of life, such as going to the toilet. In China it is reserved for couples in the intimacy of their own homes, to the extent that many mid-20*s brides are virgins on their wedding night. However, China does also have a lot of prostitutes, hidden just beneath the surface. In Thailand this is far more open.


This takes me on to the Likely Lads, who coming into the Cultural Show, had heard they did a &Strip Tease*. They wanted to know all about this from me and how far they went? 每 Durrrh! I said I doubted it here, and was proved correct. In a different place I would have said the opposite, and half expected a &Lady boy* to be performing. Not sure how they would have coped with that one. Siu Ying said it was simple to tell the real girls from the boys, as they all had Adam*s Apples. Ahem! I am going to leave that one for when we visit Phuket as independent travellers, perhaps with Jim to show us around one evening? Neal and Jackie may be up for it also? I reckon I can pick 19 out of any 20, and she won*t get anywhere near that I am sure. It*s the &Prove it* question that worries me most, like asking for sugar granules and being served-up crystalline salt instead 每 hard to tell the difference sometimes unless you know exactly what is coming! Let*s quickly move on#


I have a few regrets, in that we didn*t really have the chance to interact with local Thai people in a social environment. I find you can learn far more about a place or country by spending one evening in a typical backstreet bar mixing it with the locals, than you can from a month spent admiring the &showcased* highlights. My deepest regret is the food 每 as I was looking forwards to 5-days of hot curries with coconut and lemongrass, just like Yupa made for me in China during her visits. Kwan Beekers came closest on our second night in Pattaya; but whilst being totally genuine Thai cuisine, I am sure she tempered it for the typical foreigner*s palate. Next time I want the &No holes barred* version!


I am also interested to discover how somewhere like Phuket compares with Ibiza 每 one place on this planet I love dearly and would gladly return to anytime, especially San Antonio! There we saw Judge Jewels live, but my musical horizons were permanently broadened by Jose Padilla. I would like to know how Siam compares.


But I also need to leave the club-scene behind next time and see some of the real country and culture. Siamese in particular are noted as being experts in cultural dance, and let me assure you what we witnessed that night in rural Bangkok was not typical Thai culture. My problem is that apart from our Guide, I am probably the only person who was present who knows this.


And this in turn brings me back to the trip itself. You see, I have the distinct impression that not only did the Chinese amongst us leave with a belief that &Thailand is in this box*, but that they also left thinking China was far superior. Cummon, the food was generally bland Cantonese of good nutritional value, and no inspiration like transport caf谷 standard. Everybody spoke Cantonese, and the few that didn*t spoke Mandarin.


Reverse this and I doubt many Chinese are fluent in either of the two main Thai languages; Nevermind local dialects. Can the Chinese cook Thai food? Well they do, with canned coconut milk and without lemongrass. You can*t actually buy those specific Thai leaves in Chine either, so common in certain authentic Thai dishes and especially soups.


Now I may be wrong, but I have always considered a Country; no, a Culture to be defined by its food and social practices. The family and/or community traditions and celebrations that are passed down through tens or hundreds of generations. This we glimpsed for brief moments, but I knew what to look for. I worry that my fellow travellers entirely missed these insights completely.


I left with the view that Thailand was great fun, but not as good as China. I think this was in part manipulated, as I would have a very hard call to choose between the two under normal situations and holiday visits as an independent traveller. I know this. The others do not, and so Thailand is for them all contained in &This box* = what we were allowed to be exposed to. Also note that at all times Charlie Chan, our guide, was with us.


I remain very pleased we made this trip, and made new and lasting friends along the way. But I remain not totally stupid all of the time, and know another Siam exists just the other side of the window we viewed from. The Chinese Group trip was excellent in many regards, to the point where it was actually quite hard to fault 每 accepted the couple of glaring observations I have made above.


I will return and see this fascinating country again, but next time as an independent traveller doing a personal trip of cultural discovery, and perhaps some elements of personal growth also.


The Chinese group tour in itself was like a whirlwind snapshot of what was on offer, but you needed to temper this with looking beyond, and catching the real pieces of Siamese people and their culture. I worry that many first-time travellers may have missed these fleeting clues. That stated I would now be happy to take another Chinese Group tour, if only to get a rough idea about another country and cross the main tourist things off my list. I would look for where and what to do next time, as this is an extremely cost-effective way of broadening ones horizons.


On the other hand, I would be very interested to know how a 5-day Chinese group trip would happen in UK? Perhaps:

  1. Arrive Heathrow, transfer to Bournemouth guesthouse for night
  2. Do pier and London transfer. Do London sights. Overnight either Shepherds Bush or Leicester Square.
  3. Finish London = city bus tour of highlights (Buck-Pal, etc), do Oxbridge (Cambridge for University and English [Education Sales] and Oxford [Harry Potter]). Overnight somewhere cheap.
  4. Warwick Castle, en route Manchester. Option, go to Manchester United Football Ground and Downtown cruise past in bus. O/n cheap hotel in Levenshulme (Chinese Consulate thereabouts).
  5. Shopping and sales in Manchester, go to Liverpool or Blackpool for an hour. Eat Chinese version of &fish &n chips* arranged in advance. Head back to London stopping at Stratford-Upon-Avon (Shakespeare play and cheap digs).
  6. Coach back in London, do either: Windsor, Richmond Palace, or another. Madame Tussauds or similar. Make Heathrow for 9pm for night flight back to China.


From this you should presume to know the whole of United Kingdom and its different cultures intimately. That actually isn*t a bad ad-hoc itinerary, but you and I both know there is so much else missing#


So this is what I take away with me about Thailand 每 we scratched the surface and learnt &not a lot*. We had a lot of fun and it was good, but not great # because we weren*t involved with local people in their ordinary lives. Neither did we actually see very much of the country as a whole.


However, I do now have a vague understanding at first-hand of the country, and want to see it for real next time. Meanwhile my wife thinks it is all in &This box over here*. So do most of our other fellow travellers. It*s a shame, but suited best for us at that at the time.


Now I am British, and if I wanted to watch Shakespeare, it would not be at Stratford or in London, but rather at Ludlow Castle during the two-week summer festival. There I saw Brian Blessed performing in Richard the Third, one of the Bard*s greatest works to my mind. &A horse, a horse, my Kingdom for a horse* 每 and a truly magnificent performance. They all end up in The Goat pub later, where revelry continues late into the night behind closed doors (It is technically an Inn).


I also saw Hamlet there:

   &To be or not to be: that is the question?       

  Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

  The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

  Or to take arms against the sea of troubles,

  And by opposing, end them...*


# but all too often we join with them, simply because they offer the easier rout in our lives.


Expat*s do not always follow the easiest route, because they want a little more from their lives perhaps, or are a little eccentric by nature? Therefore as a British Expat choosing to live in China, the trip to Siam was enlightening in many trivial ways. I was fortunate enough to witness Thailand from a Chinese perspective, and though it was illuminating to ones core, I fear not something destined for a place in my top ten holidays of all time.


So what did we make of the holiday?


Siu Ying really enjoyed it, but would rather go somewhere else next time. That stated she also enjoyed many things about the holiday very much. I am sure that her minus points are partly due to the rigors of a Chinese Group Tour. This was her first experience of one, and I know that like me she got a bit feed-up with the repeated commission sales stoppages. Had she been able to wander around the famous Bangkok week-end street market instead I am sure her perception of the whole Country would have been altered most favourably!


Chinese tend to be very patient when it comes to waiting, and hanging around in general. However even her patience was stretched to breaking point with our ridiculously detoured transfer to Hong Kong. This was also her very first time flying. The flights she loved in spite of the slight ear problem on our outward journey. The various boats we used were also a short thrill, but all too often they were driven far too quickly causing nausea 每 something many Chinese are prone to. This took the edge off what should have been a lot of fun for all. I was fine, but then I am a qualified sailor and well used to life on the ocean wave.


I have tried to get her to tell me her highs and lows with a little success. She loved the two beaches, and our midnight stroll along the shore in Pattaya is a special memory for her. The island beach was also very enjoyable, but tempered by the stupid crossing that made her feel very unwell after each crossing. Again, her ears are not used to this type of movement. The crossing of Bangkok*s main river was not memorable except for the ten minutes stop to feed the fish with buns 每 something she found to be very amusing. She also really enjoyed the Teak Mansion and Grand Palace, and our time at both was just enough.


By contrast my wife did not enjoy the snake place and neither crocodile experience at all 每 saying they were &very stupid*. However the elephant ride was ok 每 and definitely something to tell family and friends about back home. Like many of us she wanted to spend a lot more time looking at the tigers, but we were subjected to crocodiles instead.


I have also listened to what she has told her friends since arriving back in China, and she does regret not buying a crocodile skin bag 每 there was one in particular she really liked, but it was very expensive. And I think that was part of the problem. Wherever we went seemed to be for very rich tourists, and not for ordinary people like ourselves. Most of our group was from a similar socio-economic background, equivalent to middle class I suppose 每 entrepreneurs who haven*t made the big time &yet*. We had some spare money, but knew not to be stupid with it. The exchange rate to the Chinese RenMinBe was also far worse than it should have been 每 everywhere (Including Banks and Bureau de Change), by virtually one third of its exchange rate value! I was OK because my funds were coming direct from UK where the exchange rate was about right. Therefore I was getting the equivalent of 45 Baht to the Yuan, whereas they were getting only 35 Bahts worth 每 this is a very significant difference!


Siu Ying thought the food was OK, but only OK, meaning there was nothing really spectacular. Given that we all agreed the breakfasts were atrocious, the rest was edible and nourishing. She loved the fresh crabs and shellfish served on the Island, and also the Thai style hotpot/barbeque thingymagig on our last evening. However far too much of the remainder was simply wholesome and filling, with nothing notable about it whatsoever. To my mind there should have been one typical Thai meal served during the trip, and it should have been easy enough to arrange. I admit that Chinese people do not generally like curry, and a hot Thai one would have been left untouched by all but myself. However to not have lemongrass in any dish served, or those Thai leaves I can never remember the name of 每 but are used often in Thai soups 每 I find this unforgivable. Food is part of a countries cultural heritage, and frequently defines a nation abroad. Traditionally British people are known as &The Roast Beefs*, although perhaps the &Fish and Chips* would be better nowadays? I do worry the many Chinese who visit Thailand will not come to respect the Siamese for their red and green curries, and many other notable dishes peculiar to their society.


Unlike some of our party, she was unfazed by the more blatant sexuality expressed so openly by Thai society. To her it was a laugh, but then, we were never anywhere without our chaperones. Therefore we only skimmed the surface instead of taking a more in depth look 每 if those are the correct words to use hahaha!


As for yours truly, it was pretty much what I expected, and it has to be stated that a Chinese group tour is an ideal and very cost-effective means by which to get a snapshot of what a country is perhaps really like. I think they are an ideal way to visit a country to see if it is worth going back to in the future, perhaps for a longer stay of several weeks as an independent traveller. Therefore I would happily go on one again to somewhere else as a short stay to plan a proper vacation for a later date.


I most certainly do want to visit Thailand again, and have now crossed many things off my to do list as being done already. However, as I have pointed out above, next time we will be independent travellers and not part of any tour group or package holiday.


My personal highlights?

It*s hard to say. The general Thai architecture was very interesting in a general sort of way. I found the Teak Mansion most intriguing, and this is something I probably would not have visited outside a tour package. I had already written off the commission sales things as being an integral part of the trip, so discount them as inconveniences to be endured as part and parcel of a cheap holiday. The Grand Palace was good, and a see once is fine for me. Similarly, I have seen enough temples unless like the tiger place way up north, there is a very special reason for going to one.


I like the island enough to want to return for an overnight stay, something I think would be quite relaxing and enjoyable. There again, there are many other islands in Thailand, and one of the smaller ones around Krabi would suffice equally as well for our next visit.


And I think that about sums up my whole experience. I liked what I saw enough to want to go back and do it my way 每 spending time when and where I want, and skipping the bits I do not particularly enjoy. The only thing that makes me pause and reconsider returning to Siam is their blanket no smoking policy indoors, something I have a very serious problem with. If they were to allow establishments to choose whether to be smoking or non smoking it would help greatly. However, I did notice that in many places the signs are there and totally ignored by all patrons 每 sort of a Latin attitude to rules if you like.


I am not put off because of the troubles between red and yellow shirts (Traditionalists vs Economists), and in fact I would find it interesting to speak within a social situation to people from both sides and gain an insight into their personal feelings about the conflict = not what we are feed by international media channels whom only ever report the politically related doctrine of their respective governments.


I was very disappointed with the constant Cantonese food, which was ok, and that*s about it. Had it not been for my brief stay at Gerard and Kwan Beekers lovely restaurant in Pattaya, then I would not have tasted real Thai food at all.


The highlight for me was the last evening when we all decided that we were going out for a few beers and some local food. I guess the restaurant we ended up at eventually was upon reflection pretty third rate, but we had a great time! And for me that*s what it is all about. Given a smaller group I am sure we would have been toasting with the locals and getting involved with the local community spirit. But what we shared that evening was my ideal. The food there was actually Thai, but a barbecue come hotpot isn*t exactly a true reflection of Thai cuisine now is it?


By means of comparison, let me hold up a typical British pub lunch platter 每 you know, hunks of bread, butter, cheese, Branston pickle + various other options, a local Butcher*s pork pie perhaps. Take this into the beer garden and wash down with some real ale, probably by a canal or Holt on a steam railway. Now this is an excellent meal, but most people would not consider this to be a typical example of international British cuisine 每 and exactly the same goes concerning the meal of our last evening. But my point is that is was the people that made it so special.


Overall we both really enjoyed the holiday. It had high points and low points for both of us, but for the price it cost us it is extremely difficult to find genuine fault. Our Guides were excellent and kept us safe (Not a problem for me, but for first time Chinese abroad this is a very different matter, and one of great concern to them personally).


I hope readers have found this missive to be interesting and entertaining in various respects, although as always I remain open to constructive criticism and genuine observations.


I*ll finish with my top laugh, which was the crocodile ride of course. There we all are in a flimsy wooden boat, in the middle of a crocodile swap - feeding hungry man-eating beasts using a wooden pole with lumps of meat attached via a piece of string 每 and the guy comes round insisting we wear life jackets!

※You gotta be seriously out of your tree sunshine!§


By the way:

Siu Ying has since decided that she will revisit Thailand, but only after going to Malaysia, England, and Christmas in Hong Kong first. I am very up for a few weeks this coming Chinese New Year with Jim and Duma + possibly Neal and Jackie? - So watch this space#