|I recently went to the island of Phuket in Thailand on a short sojourn to escape the rigors of running a “successful” (meaning not yet bankrupt) English school and to relax in general. A good friend of mine has a fabulous house there with a swimming pool and an endless supply of gin and tonic. Heaven. I was also joined by another old friend and his family so the company was good, too.
As anyone who has been there knows, Thailand is a country full of contrasts and contradictions. The very rich live next door to the very poor; the best food is paradoxically the cheapest, and the most beautiful ladies are in fact men (a good friend of mine told me). Buyer beware.
As a tourist, without a house and swimming pool (of my own), my ranking was somewhere in the lower half of the social strata. This seemed to be determined by the fact that I could afford the air ticket (after a lot of begging to my wife and a promise to wash the dishes for the next six months) and the fact that I had enough cash for a few small luxuries and cheap omiyage for the riff-raff back in Japan.
Of course, the word “tourist” actually means “easy target”. That is perhaps why most Japanese travelers prefer to join group tours and stay in large enough herds to keep the wolves at bay than to travel alone. However, once you wander off the beaten track by yourself (my favourite pursuit when traveling) you can touch the local culture more closely. No safety, but no distance either.
Away from the tourist hotspots, I found the local people to be decent, helpful and very friendly. Not sure if the reception would have been the same in some of the more southern regions of the country, but no-one tried to cut off my head or set me on fire, so that considerably enhanced the enjoyment of the trip.
Early morning jogs along the beach and cooling off in the surf made for a great start to each day. The sea was pretty rough and had dangerous undercurrents (which could have been why my wife had recommended long swims there) but it was also soothing and relaxing. Harmony may lie in contrasts.
Unfortunately, the trip was soon heading to a close and it was time to return to Phuket airport (better described as a shed in a field) for my return to reality. Sat in economy class with my knees under my chin sipping a cold Thai beer, I thought about the contrasts between Thailand and Japan. The list was long, but the best metaphor I could come up with was Japan is a finely-tuned, well-oiled, smooth-running machine that hums along quietly, predictably, and gets you reliably from A to B (a Toyota Lexus springs to mind), and Thailand is a tuck-tuck car; erratic, unstable, unreliable – and really great fun to ride in (as long as you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere and accept the fact that you might not arrive).
So, like most things in life, it isn’t a matter of which one is better, it’s simply a matter of enjoying the contrast.