Bangkok, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi

Anyone traveling for an extended period of time quickly realizes that it is very different from simply taking a long holiday. A holiday is (usually) a pretty tightly scheduled two- or three-week time away from home, aimed at decompressing, recharging, spending quality time with family or friends, at a time of year where most others do the same. It’s entirely reasonable for a holiday-maker to want to experience as much as possible within the limited time they have, and to do so in a way that is frictionless and hassle-free. Long-term traveling, on the other hand, is almost never easy or problem-free, whether that applies to transportation, accommodation or simply communication and interaction. It never remains scheduled for more than perhaps a few weeks, and therefore cannot be anything but more slowly paced. For these reasons, the destination of a holiday generally does not have any consequences for its level of difficulty. For traveling, this could not be more different.

For traveling, especially on a budget, choosing appropriate countries to match a desired difficulty level is arguably just as important as selecting them for places one wants to visit. Differences in economic development, transportation infrastructure, language barriers, local culture… can make for a vastly more complicated travel life in one place compared to another. In my experience, there seem to be about five tiers, of which I myself have only explored three or maybe four. My list, which is absolutely subject to interpretation:

  • Tier 1: South-East Asia, Southern Europe: Highly developed for tourism, very affordable, English widely spoken, pleasant weather most of the year, safe.
  • Tier 2: North America, rest of Europe, Oceania & the Caribbean: Mostly well-developed, more expensive, English spoken in a decent number of places, mostly pleasant weather, mostly safe.
  • Tier 3: Central and South America, Northern and South Africa, Middle East, South Asia: Less touristy, relatively affordable, greater language barriers, variable weather, safety highly dependent on specific areas.
  • Tier 4: Northern and Central Asia, Far-East Asia: Remoter places that are much less traveled by Westerners, more expensive, high language barriers, variable weather, variable degrees of safety.
  • Tier 5: Central Africa, Antarctica: Either not developed for tourism or extremely expensive, language barriers, extreme weather, questionable safety (for different reasons).

I’ve spent most of my traveling life in Tiers 1 through 3, and have had great times in all of them, but the general level of awareness and resilience required to master Tier 3 is, without question, much higher than for Tiers 1 and 2. My first ever backpacking trip was to India (Tier 3) and was quite overwhelming at first. Trips to Europe and Oceania (Tier 2) where much easier but also more expensive. And on this trip, Latin America mostly belonged in Tier 3, not in the least due to the Spanish language barrier I had to overcome. My Canada stop should have been Tier 2, but this ranking does not take into account being hosted by hospitable friends, which tends to reduce any Tier to 1. It is then perhaps no surprise that for my eighth month of traveling, with traveling fatigue slowly creeping, I chose the country at the very, very top of Tier 1: Thailand.

In my experience, there is no easier country to travel in as a backpacker than Thailand. From the moment you step foot in the country to the moment you leave, everything is straightforward and simple. No other country in the world has a comparable tourism industry machine, and even after two years of COVID and a crushing reduction in visitor numbers, Thailand remains at the top of its game. Arriving in Bangkok, the city’s gazillion taxis, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and well-running Sky Train and Metro systems are ready to take you wherever you need to go. The number of delicious and extremely cheap street-food places is only rivalled by the frankly ridiculous amount of 7-Eleven stores, open 24-7, pleasantly airconditioned and selling just about any other food a visitor might ever desire. For all non-culinary needs, the numerous day and night markets offer everything from clothing to electronics at rock-bottom prices. Tourist routes are so well established that you can get on any bus or plane at a moment’s notice and get to your destination while being expertly herded and fed by an invisible network of affiliate operations. Unless you visit really rural areas, there’s no need to know even a single word of Thai, and even though it would be disrespectful to not at least try, you’d never know by the way the locals greet everyone with a smile, every single time. There is cell coverage nearly everywhere with a nearly free, data-unlimited tourist SIM card. Every mid-sized city has an immigration office for all visa(-extension) needs. The country is incredibly safe for tourists, even the most badly-behaving ones. The weather is nice year-round, even during the so-called rainy season, and the scenery is simply stunning. I could go on for a while.

My point is, what I perhaps really needed was a holiday from my travels, a time of ease and effortlessness, which I knew from past experience Thailand could provide. And boy, did I have a holiday. Bangkok, one of my favorite cities in the world, greeted me with a familiar warmth (and sky-high humidity). Debaucherous times on Khao San road, bargain-browsing at the markets in Chatuchak and MBK Mall, living it up on rooftop bars in Sukhumvit, revisiting gorgeous temples and reuniting with classical music friends from half a lifetime ago. A wolfpack was all that was missing. I went back to the gorgeous islands of Koh Phangan, Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi, looking ever more pristine due to it being the first low season after two years of closure. I alternated party hostel life with secluded beach hut existence, playing music, flying my drone, driving my scooter up and down the coastline, snorkeling, swimming and getting tanned. I soaked up the fragrant island vibes and became a holiday-maker for a solid three weeks of good fun.

This little holiday has now come to an end, yet I’ve decided to stay in Thailand a while longer, to go back north and settle in Pai for at least a month. Pai is a small, mountainous hippy oasis close to the Myanmar border, populated with beautiful hills and very chill people. I’ll be spending my time there volunteering at the Famous Circus Hostel, as recommended by one of my oldest Belgian friends. And so, the adventure goes on, with a sedentary chapter soon to be written.

Happy sunset :)

September 8th, 2022

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