After more than three amazing months in India and its neighboring country Nepal, we finally departed for our last big part of the journey – South East Asia. Not being able to cross the land border between India and Myanmar due to the relationship between the countries, we instead took a flight to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Having heard so many things about this country, from its touristic character, to the unique food and its reputation for sex tourism, we were very curious to see and experience it ourselves. Back in Kolkata, sadly multiple members needed to leave the project due to visa issues and obligations in their home countries and so the only ones remaining and scouting out the first South East Asian country were Nina, Elena and Yannic.
Arriving in Bangkok, we were blown away by its size and a partly modernized, futuristic city (skyscrapers, the sky train and platforms out of glass, connecting buildings above the streets). After rural India and the earthquake-struck Nepal, this came as a slight culture shock for us. The traffic here was equally vast, but much more organized and not loud and honking constantly.
Our first host in Thailand was Toom, a hosting legend who had hosted already over 2000 people prior to us. At his place, we had a very intense emotional meeting in which we spoke about how we felt about leaving half of the group behind and having to deal with the whole workload just by ourselves.
At the time, Bangkok experienced heavy rain fall and all the streets were flooded for some hours every day. Upon getting used to this new environment, we started searching for NGOs in the city and found a lot about women rights and especially sex work. However getting in touch with the organizations proved to be more difficult than expected as numbers, addresses and emails that we found online were often wrong. We also found out that basically all projects were based in the two biggest cities Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Finally, we were able to speak to the manager of one medical center for refugees. Because of prosecution by the Thai authorities, they are forced to operate unofficially and by word of mouth. Afraid to face problems, they forwarded us to the UNHCR, where we had an insightful interview which taught us a lot about the current situation in the country regarding refugees. We learned that Thailand’s government officially doesn’t accept or support refugees and that supporting refugees is even prosecuted. The only refugees that Thailand is accepting and supporting are Burmese people which got displaced during the civil wars in the ethnic diverse country and are housed in long-term refugee camps along the North-Western border. Many people however don’t officially come as refugees, but come on the relatively easy-to-get Tourist visa to Thailand and don’t leave the country anymore, often with the hopes of going further to the US or Canada. The likelihood for this, however, is incredibly low and many get stuck illegally in the country, often without speaking any Thai and completely vulnerable to harassment by the police and other authorities.
Another point where we had work waiting for us was our team. Due to many members needing to leave the project in India, we had searched for new members to join us since Nepal – this time without iA being there to lead. Now, with a stable place and proper internet, we had several interviews lined up with potential new members. We had multiple Skype conversations with amazing people, of whom most unfortunately none could join in the end though, due to different reasons.
Soon after our arrival, all of us promptly had fallen sick. Our host told me that he had seen many travelers get stomach problem when coming from India to Thailand. As Toom had new Couchsurfers arriving soon, we also needed to find a new host which proved to be quite difficult in the busy metropolis. Insecurity of the proper place to stay made it hard to concentrate at the project work which was giving us a lot of stress. It was quite frustrating at the moment, but fortunately, iA could reach out to our friend Thanpitcha, who we had met in Dharamshala, India, before. We stayed at her place and were introduced to her lovely family. Inside the family, we were heartwarmingly taken care of. We felt directly like at home there which changed the whole feeling about Thailand for us.
Nada, Thanpitcha’s aunt and former Miss Thailand, took us in and made it her task to feed us with the most delicious Thai food, even catering to our for Thai standards unusual vegetarian diet. When we went out together, every market offered millions of different dishes, from Phad Pak (fried vegetables with rice), to Som Tam (spicy papaya salad) and sweet sticky rice with fresh mango and coconut sauce. As food lovers and people who is part of the project which aims at opening a restaurant in the future, we found ourselves in heaven.
After a long time of staying in Bangkok, we decided to hitchhike to Pattaya, a city on the coast South-East of Bangkok and known for its heavy sex tourism, as our other Thai friend from Dharamsala, Nattha, was living there. We stayed for some days with her. We read about the sex trafficking going on in Thailand’s ‘sleaziest’ city and got full-on confronted with it at nighttime. In Pattaya, we planned for the coming weeks and decided to first travel through the South of Thailand before heading into the North.
Our first big hitchhiking trip from Pattaya to Phuket taught us the basics of hitchhiking in Thailand. Having to change tactics, we went from one patrol station to the other and approached the people directly to ask for a ride. Here the attitude towards hitchhikers differs from the one we experienced in India. We observed that the Thai drivers were most unlikely to stop for us on the road, but were incredibly generous once we talked to them and they agreed to take us. With that information it was much easier for us and we got some amazing rides.
After two long days with many pick-up trucks we made it to Phuket and met our amazing host Nok. Being an experienced traveller, she shared many stories with us and showed us around on her scooter. As Nok was preparing to move to the Netherlands, she shared with us her experiences with stereotypes towards Thai women and sex tourism. She was one of the few female hosts in this Spicyroad journey, and we generally were delighted to meet a lot of female drivers and hosts during our time in Thailand.
On our way back up North, we stopped in the beautiful Khao Sok National Park. Here, we spent our days enjoying the beautiful nature and also had another emotional meeting where we spoke a lot about the new divide in responsibility since iA’s departure as project work without her differed a lot. We talked about how we could organize this in a fair and sustainable way.
Soon, we hitchhiked further up to Chumphon. On the way we were on the back of pickup truck and got into a monsoon rain and became soaking wet, including all of our luggage. A story which seems to belong into a waterpark, but which was quite terrifying for us at the time as we had important electronic devices for project work with us.
From Chumphon, we took the night ferry to the island of Kho Tao, which proved to be one of our highlights in South Thailand. Here, we camped on the beach and snorkeled with sharks and a multitude of other colorful fishes over coral reefs. It was a mind blowing experience for us. Having seen a multitude of stunning nature on our journey, Thailand’s beaches and waters are just unrivaled in their beauty.
Finally, it was time to head back to the capital. In Bangkok we had to admit that the time had passed so fast that we weren’t able to see the North of Thailand at all anymore in the duration of our visas. So at the very last day of our visa, we hitchhiked to the border crossing to Myanmar, to spend some weeks there before reentering Thailand again.
On the way up North, we met Anita, a lovely woman who picked us up and went out of her way to drop us closer to the border. We enjoyed our talks and became very close while sharing our stories, of which she had many out of her work as an investigator for corruption cases. She invited us to a delicious dinner, provided us with loads of snacks and even figured out a way to print out Yannic’s visa for Myanmar. When she had to drop us, she insisted on helping us to find our last ride to the border crossing. After this beautiful encounter, we approached the border with a warm and fuzzy feeling before entering Myanmar.
The next 2 weeks, we spent in Myanmar exploring bat caves, golden pagodas and learning the national sport Chinlone. We spoke with organizations fighting for gender equality and against gender roles and violence against women, enjoyed the relaxed capital Yangon and went to discover the floating life around Inle lake. Way to soon, it was time to head back to Thailand again. (To read more about our experiences in Myanmar, click here: http://spicyroad.org/2017/07/27/looking-back-myanmar/)
Reentering Thailand, we went through the same border crossing again and got to meet Anita a second time. We spent one night in her hometown Kamphaeng Phet and had a short, but really nice time being showed around by her. The next day we hitchhiked up North to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second biggest city, where we would stay for most of our remaining time. Here we got to be the first couchsurfers of Peak, a lovely lady living in the outskirts of the city. Even though Chiang Mai isn’t one of the cities on the coastline, it has its own unique charm. Surrounded by mountains, its city center holds a huge amount of beautiful temples, tiny shops and nice restaurants. Apart from that there are many cultural important places close to the city.
It was time for a new member to join and everyone was excited and happy to welcome Rupa into the crew. She had previously worked with Rohingya refugees with the UNHCR in Thailand and was now looking for a more free way to get active. Back in her homecountry Bangladesh, she even had started her own project, a school for children of the hilltribes. From talking with her, we learned a lot about Bangladesh.
As Thailand’s second biggest city, Chiang Mai houses many NGOs and smaller projects, most of them supporting the poor hilltribe people or the displaced Burmese refugees. We got to visit the Burma Study Center, which focusses on supporting Burmese refugees with free English courses. They aim at providing a community for exchange and learning which they hope sets the base for a more peaceful future of Myanmar. Another project we met up with was the ‘Can Do’ Bar, setting an example for safe and fair sex work, by allowing the women to work in a just environment without being exploited and treated as outcasts for doing this specific kind of work. It was very refreshing to chat with the sex workers and seeing them happy with their work.
Way to soon our time in Thailand came to an end, but our way to the border of Laos is something we won’t forget so easily. On a day trip to the white temple between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, we were picked up by a middle aged man from the Netherlands who had been living in Thailand for the past 25 years. The short 20 km ride ended in a in him taking us to the temple and back and driving us all the way to the border, with his two lovely dogs Alaska and Lyindia in the back. This insane trip took us two days and over 1000 km. It was one of my most memorable hitchhiking experiences and I am grateful and happy to have met such a kind, knowledgeable and funny soul.
Thailand definitely earned a spot in our hearts. We had some of the most generous and lovely hosts here and its nature is just incredibly beautiful with its beaches, jungles and mountains. On top of all this, the food culture definitely got us hooked, too, even though the vegetarian options got a little repetitive over time. Hitchhiking in Thailand at first almost felt like Western Europe to us as people wouldn’t stop for us – something we hadn’t experienced since Eastern Europe. Once we decided to hop from rest station to rest station though, we moved quickly and comfortably through the whole county, often on the back of pick-up trucks. Here, we learned a lot about sex work and the abusive tourism that can come with it. We saw some very dodgy forms of sex work in Bangkok and Pattaya, but also saw a sustainable and fair approach in the ‘Can Do’ Bar in Chiang Mai. From talking with the sex workers there, we learned that even though it certainly exposes them to the risk of abuse, it can just be another job and important source of income and what is important for then is not to be alienized for their choice of work. We also learned that we need to ask ourselves why society always discriminates women for prostituting when they really are the victim of the structure of this industry. Why are there no discussions about the sex industry itself, and the men who are taking benefit out of it? Why are men not jugded as harshly as the victims of the industry are being judged? We learned a lot while seeing ourselves clearly and found us blind at many points.
Another problematic issue in Thailand is the government’s approach to refugees coming as illegal migrants. Its denial of these issues together with an very easily achievable visa leads to people getting stuck in the country without any hope of getting out of their miserable situation. By not giving and even prosecuting any support in the form of, for example, language training, the situation gets worse and more complicated. We hope that this situation gets addressed in the future and wish all organizations supporting people in need of help best of luck.