Monday, January 4, 2010

Thailand Trip

Thailand is a land of contrasts. This trip was what we were expecting and at the same time it was nothing like we had imagined. Parts of our trip were interesting, equally there were parts of our trip that in time we hope to forget. Over the next week I will post highlights from our 10-day visit to the country known as the Land of 1000 Smiles.

I have always wanted to go to Thailand. When I was in 4th grade I made a book for a school assignment on the top 10 countries I wanted to visit – there are only a handful of countries that I remember, Thailand is one of them. Maybe to a 9-year-old it was exotic. Perhaps watching The King and I fueled my childhood imagination about far off places and architecture shimmering in gold – whatever it was, a visit to Thailand for me had always been on my wish-list.

We were able to do a lot of what we wanted in Thailand – ride an elephant; go to Kanchanaburi, home to the infamous death railway and where The Bridge over the River Kwai took place; see the Emerald Buddha and Grand Palace in Bangkok; go to James Bond Island; visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market and the Jim Thompson House. But there were things we did not get to do … and I won’t whine about that too much because we did after all get to go to Thailand. But traveler beware, even with extreme caution - no ice, only bottled water, no salads - some in our family got hit, and hit hard with Thai Tummy. All seasoned travelers probably have their tales to tell … our kids will certainly have theirs. I am not too sure we’ll be able to get a couple of them outside of Japan ever again – unless their suitcase is stocked with MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) and a water purification system attached to their Camel Backs. That was about the time that the question arose “what’s a third-world country?”

Developing Country, NIC or Third-World?

You look at the travel books and go online and see the websites and of course you know in the back of your mind everything has been edited (or touched by Photoshop)… but it’s not until you come face to face with reality that your brain registers a disconnect. There are of course the beautiful wats, the impressive urban shopping areas in Bangkok and the rapid transit system we found easy to use, clean and at least on the day we used it primarily filled with westerners. But from our hotel you could see shantytowns, the streets were a far cry from pristine and the street odor at times could be overwhelming, and for all the new construction and modern hotels and office buildings the streets were also lined with concrete buildings in desperate need of a whitewash – there was depressing squalor everywhere. As I mentioned, one of our boys asked “what’s a country a third-world country?” (darn those kids for keeping me on my toes), after sort of skirting around the issue I finally had to admit that I would need to get home and look it up – or better yet, he should look it up! For those of you who are like me and too much time has passed between your last World History/Economics class and today, here's the very brief run down: third-world is apparently cold-war terminology, when the world was divided up into First-world (U.S. allied countries), Second-world (Soviet allied communist countries) and Third-world (all the others). Today the U.N., WTO and IMF classify what were then called Third-world countries into Newly-Industrialized Countries (NIC’s) or Developing Countries – but believe me it is not as black and white as all that, and I am certainly no economist having detested all 5 of the econ classes I had to suffer through in college - if you want to know more you’ll have to do your own research. But the information I was searching for is where exactly does Thailand fall in all of this? Thailand is a NIC. They have a constitutional monarchy, their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is the longest reigning monarch in the world and by all accounts beloved by his countrymen, and Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation never colonized by Europeans’ - something they are fiercely proud of. Their economy has moved from primarily an agricultural one to one of exports for goods such as garments, footwear, furniture, jewelry and technology products. However, they are the top (or second, depending on the data you look at) producer of rice in the world. While more than 15 million of their population earns less than the United Nations measure for poverty levels (that’s roughly 25% of the population) and there are 1200 officially designated slum neighborhoods in Bangkok alone – Thailand makes up for it in their social services with the official UN poverty figure of 9.8%. Just FYI, that’s better than the UN rates the U.S. at 12% – guess those social services rank high with those crazy UN folks.

So there you have it in a coconut shell … more about Thailand than you may have wanted to know but it helps to set the stage for what we saw during our visit. Why we continued to be baffled by our expectations vs. reality. Hope you can check back in throughout the week and enjoy the visit to Thailand.

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