Reflections from a dark night in Chiang Mai

Reading Time: 3 minutes

On the night of January 30, Chiang Mai, Thailand’s big city in the north, fell into darkness due to a severe power outage. A high-velocity storm had just swept through the city tumbling tree trunks over like dominos, leaving as quickly as it came. Lit up by sporadically active generators or the simple flickering flames of candles, cafes hosting mostly Western and Asian tourists alongside the city’s touristic Tha Phae Gate remained crowded. Just down the road at a 7-Eleven, four workers stood idly by exchanging jokes in the shadows, waiting for power to return.

By Justin Calderon

Despite the deprivations that Thailand incurs upon its visitors, the country’s popularity never seems to wane. Even the threat of violence in early 2010, when protesters and police engaged each other in firefights across the streets of Bangkok did not send tourism arrivals into a tailspin. In fact, Thailand saw a record number of arrivals in 2010 after quickly rebounding from the political turbulence, welcoming in a total of 15.8 million visitors, with traditionally cautious markets such as Indonesia and Malaysia becoming some of the highest growth markets at 24 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively.

Onward to present day, Thailand has continued standing atop its pedestal as an attractive tourism destination, once again recording a record-breaking 22 million arrivals, up 16 per cent from 2011, Ministry of Tourism figures show.

Unpredictability of power outages, access to sanitary facilities, reliable public transport and even civil conflict notwithstanding, Thailand inherently continues to attracts tourists by offering a different experience that stems from its natural, almost national philosophy of mai bpen rai.

Although entire books have been written on the one phrase alone, mai bpen rai can be quickly summated as meaning ‘its OK,’ ‘it doesn’t matter,’ ‘you are welcome’ or ‘life goes on.’ Varied as they may be, to me, at least, mai bpen rai is the most accurate way to describe Thailand, a place where if an object or matter falls to a place, it is generally left to its natural order.

It is this qualitative aspect of Thai society that is imbued is it world-renowned hospitality and service industry. Combined with external factors such as the rapid growth of low-cost airlines, Thailand’s tourism sector has all the favourable factors needed to continue on its path as a prime holiday destination, including its alluring natural assets, such as its well-documented coconut tree-lined islands, bucolic mountainside villages and the bargain shopping gamut.

The Thailand tourism story

Thailand didn’t just become a tourist magnet overnight. Actually, Siam, what the country was called before 1932, was an anti-colonist power that shunned interaction with outsiders, having witnessed the invasion of Western powers across Asia.

The Vietnam War changed this by leaps and bounds. The seaside city of Pattaya soon became a popular port of call for US soldiers and veterans seeking some R&R away from the chaos of Saigon. Bordellos began to proliferate and the modern Thai sex tourism industry was born. Some vets still present in Bangkok or Saigon today tell stories of active opium dens where night remained constant.

In the wake of the war, many vets stayed behind, traveling the country and instigating what would become some of the first tourist routes in Southeast Asia, seeking out accommodation in giant rice markets next to Bangkok’s old temple district that would later blossom to become the famous backpacker ghetto, Khao San Road.

Stories of myth soon emerged of a group of 20 to 30 travelers who found themselves under a full moon in Koh Phangan sometime in 1985 and celebrated a friend’s birthday atop the moonlit sand.

Business-savvy Thais soon noticed the increasing amounts of white faces with heavy backpacks making their way through Bangkok and began setting up budget hotels and bars to cater to this new crowd.

Alex Garland’s 1997 bestselling novel The Beach set the next stage. The tale of a wayward group of travelers that started their own community on an island glorified the backpacker trail and was later made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio in 2000.

Today those rickety bus routes and slap-dash budget hotels aren’t altogether gone, but they have been largely drowned out by the arrival of luxury tourism and prime bus companies. However, the Thai notion of purposeful welcome and may-have-you fatalism has remained just as strong. Come what turmoil in the years ahead, the Thai’s ability to adapt and co-exist with the rapidly changing composition of their land will make Thailand a natural choice for those looking for a distant land that is oddly close to home.

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Reading Time: 3 minutes

On the night of January 30, Chiang Mai, Thailand’s big city in the north, fell into darkness due to a severe power outage. A high-velocity storm had just swept through the city tumbling tree trunks over like dominos, leaving as quickly as it came. Lit up by sporadically active generators or the simple flickering flames of candles, cafes hosting mostly Western and Asian tourists alongside the city’s touristic Tha Phae Gate remained crowded. Just down the road at a 7-Eleven, four workers stood idly by exchanging jokes in the shadows, waiting for power to return.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

On the night of January 30, Chiang Mai, Thailand’s big city in the north, fell into darkness due to a severe power outage. A high-velocity storm had just swept through the city tumbling tree trunks over like dominos, leaving as quickly as it came. Lit up by sporadically active generators or the simple flickering flames of candles, cafes hosting mostly Western and Asian tourists alongside the city’s touristic Tha Phae Gate remained crowded. Just down the road at a 7-Eleven, four workers stood idly by exchanging jokes in the shadows, waiting for power to return.

By Justin Calderon

Despite the deprivations that Thailand incurs upon its visitors, the country’s popularity never seems to wane. Even the threat of violence in early 2010, when protesters and police engaged each other in firefights across the streets of Bangkok did not send tourism arrivals into a tailspin. In fact, Thailand saw a record number of arrivals in 2010 after quickly rebounding from the political turbulence, welcoming in a total of 15.8 million visitors, with traditionally cautious markets such as Indonesia and Malaysia becoming some of the highest growth markets at 24 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively.

Onward to present day, Thailand has continued standing atop its pedestal as an attractive tourism destination, once again recording a record-breaking 22 million arrivals, up 16 per cent from 2011, Ministry of Tourism figures show.

Unpredictability of power outages, access to sanitary facilities, reliable public transport and even civil conflict notwithstanding, Thailand inherently continues to attracts tourists by offering a different experience that stems from its natural, almost national philosophy of mai bpen rai.

Although entire books have been written on the one phrase alone, mai bpen rai can be quickly summated as meaning ‘its OK,’ ‘it doesn’t matter,’ ‘you are welcome’ or ‘life goes on.’ Varied as they may be, to me, at least, mai bpen rai is the most accurate way to describe Thailand, a place where if an object or matter falls to a place, it is generally left to its natural order.

It is this qualitative aspect of Thai society that is imbued is it world-renowned hospitality and service industry. Combined with external factors such as the rapid growth of low-cost airlines, Thailand’s tourism sector has all the favourable factors needed to continue on its path as a prime holiday destination, including its alluring natural assets, such as its well-documented coconut tree-lined islands, bucolic mountainside villages and the bargain shopping gamut.

The Thailand tourism story

Thailand didn’t just become a tourist magnet overnight. Actually, Siam, what the country was called before 1932, was an anti-colonist power that shunned interaction with outsiders, having witnessed the invasion of Western powers across Asia.

The Vietnam War changed this by leaps and bounds. The seaside city of Pattaya soon became a popular port of call for US soldiers and veterans seeking some R&R away from the chaos of Saigon. Bordellos began to proliferate and the modern Thai sex tourism industry was born. Some vets still present in Bangkok or Saigon today tell stories of active opium dens where night remained constant.

In the wake of the war, many vets stayed behind, traveling the country and instigating what would become some of the first tourist routes in Southeast Asia, seeking out accommodation in giant rice markets next to Bangkok’s old temple district that would later blossom to become the famous backpacker ghetto, Khao San Road.

Stories of myth soon emerged of a group of 20 to 30 travelers who found themselves under a full moon in Koh Phangan sometime in 1985 and celebrated a friend’s birthday atop the moonlit sand.

Business-savvy Thais soon noticed the increasing amounts of white faces with heavy backpacks making their way through Bangkok and began setting up budget hotels and bars to cater to this new crowd.

Alex Garland’s 1997 bestselling novel The Beach set the next stage. The tale of a wayward group of travelers that started their own community on an island glorified the backpacker trail and was later made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio in 2000.

Today those rickety bus routes and slap-dash budget hotels aren’t altogether gone, but they have been largely drowned out by the arrival of luxury tourism and prime bus companies. However, the Thai notion of purposeful welcome and may-have-you fatalism has remained just as strong. Come what turmoil in the years ahead, the Thai’s ability to adapt and co-exist with the rapidly changing composition of their land will make Thailand a natural choice for those looking for a distant land that is oddly close to home.

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