The other day I went to a tourist information booth and asked, ‘Tell me about some of the people who were here last year. – Steven Wright
Until recently, I’ve pretty much lived in tourist towns.
Chiang Mai, Thailand, Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Cuenca, Ecuador are huge tourist meccas. Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, and Ecuador sees over 1 million foreign tourists each year. I doubt Chiang Rai sees those kinds of numbers, but it’s definitely an expat town and a well-travelled one as it’s a launching off point to other sights in Northern Thailand, and close to the Burmese border.
Rayong, Thailand was to be my first non-tourist town and I was slightly apprehensive as to what that would entail. And even though it’s only been six months, I can’t wait any longer to share my observations!
// All you need is food
I didn’t realize how lucky we were until we left Siem Reap for Chiang Rai. SR has an amazing international food scene. More impressive is how small and less developed SR is in comparison. In Thailand you can’t own a business or land unless you have a Thai partner, so while this ‘protects’ Thailand from foreign ‘takeovers’, it keeps things like cuisine less diverse.
Another thing to consider is Thai food is amazing. So when your food is internationally well-known, maybe you don’t branch out as much? Thais are infamous for being picky about foreign foods. Bangkok residents are probably the most likely to try different foods, but sometimes I feel like Western restaurants are mainly for tourists and expats.
As a result, this is one of the areas where Rayong fails to shine. However, it’s known for its fruit with droves of Thais visiting for fruit (durian) season. And because it’s near the beach, it’s also known for its quick (relative to Bangkok) beach getaways and seafood. But since I’m not a fan of stinky food (durian or seafood), this makes no difference to me.
Thankfully, I cook, live near markets, and I like Japanese food which is found in great abundance in local malls here.
Move to a new country and you quickly see that visiting a place as a tourist, and actually moving there for good, are two very different things. – Tahir Shah, Travels With Myself
// Leaving on a jet plane
I’m trying to remember the last time I lived somewhere that didn’t have an airport. In fact, a city without one usually was a deal breaker for me. Even my tiny college town of Durango, Colorado had an airport with its two gates which amused me after growing up a half an hour away from an international airport.
Rayong’s airport is shared with Pattaya (known as a sleazy beach town) and is only an hour away. Bangkok is about three to four hours away. This is, again, new to me. Rayong is more out of the way so that the tourists we do see are passing through on their way to the beaches and islands further east. So far, this hasn’t been an inconvenience or a problem. I’m not some great traveler. I think it was one of those mental blocks more than anything where I felt nervous if I didn’t have a quick escape route from the clutches of humanity’s stupidity or an unforeseeable emergency.
A traveler enters the world into which he travels, but a tourist brings his own world with him and never sees the one he’s in. – Thomas H. Cook, The Crime of Julian Wells
// Planes, trains, and automobiles
The biggest adjustment for us non-driving folks has been getting around Rayong. There’s no Grab or Uber. Taxis are horribly unreliable. I’ve figured out how to take a songtaew to one of the malls, but not how to get back. And I’ve walked (in this heat!) to another mall and have seen how to take a songtaew back home from there. (Songtaews are ‘two benches’ in the back of a covered truck, cheap public transports, but they are limited like bus routes unless you hire a driver privately.)
And it’s not like a bus where I can look at a map and try to figure it out. It’s all about getting in the direction you want to go and seeing where it goes. It also can be very hot and uncomfortable; you are sucking down exhaust from other vehicles and having to sit close to strangers who may or may not have taken a shower that morning.
It can feel third-world, or like an adventure. (I should write a separate post on songtaew stories.)
I’ve figured out how to hire an expensive taxi for the day, but nothing yet for shorter excursions. Usually these drivers come from the next beach town over as that’s where most of the retirees and travelers go. I’m working on it, but yeah, I miss a tourist town for this one.
Travelling the road will tell you more about the road than the google will tell you about the road. – Amit Kalantri
// People are people so why should it be…
Since the bulk of my Thailand experience has been from living in the North, I was curious what the folks were going to be like here. You hear a lot of ‘Northerners are friendlier than folks down South’ talk (kind of like the opposite of America) which started to feel like boogey man stories. Well, I’m here to say that it is simply not true.
The thing about Rayong is it’s an extension of the business side of Bangkok. Many people come here to work, so there’s a nice mix of Thais from all over the country. This is great for classroom conversations and for learning more about Thailand’s geography.
I also like seeing different faces, body sizes, and shapes. This might sound odd, but in the North, I felt like there were about 7 different types of Thai faces I’d see. Obviously I don’t want to say it’s inbreeding, but there wasn’t a great deal of variety, if that makes sense. You’d see someone that looked like someone else, and then you’d continue to do so.
Here, because we are closer to the Cambodian border, I see folks who look more Cambodian, and because Rayong has a variety of Thais, ‘types’ are not as common. I’m also beginning to understand why I’m stared at so often. I really don’t look like a typical Chinese-Thai. Although I’m quite confident that when/if I head over to China, I’ll see more of me.
Another surprise is the amount of people I see with tattoos over here. The North, I’m beginning to realize more and more, is conservative by comparison. I was careful not to show too much skin up there and I learned to cover my tattoo especially when I taught. But in Rayong, I see so many men and women (even mothers!) with tattoos. I’m still taken back when I see them. And if you want to wear short shorts, ladies, it’s perfectly okay. Now, I will say showing more skin has become more commonplace since when I’ve first moved to Thailand, but it really is a different story down here and I’m only talking about Central Thailand!
When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable – Clifton Fadiman
// Shop til you drop
Chiang Rai might have a great taxi service, but they only have one shopping mall. It’s fine and it does the job especially in this day and age of Internet shopping. They also have two ‘walking street markets’, but after Rayong, CR and Siem Reap feel like small potatoes.
Rayong has two major malls and plenty of smaller ones, kind of like American’s strip malls, but not in the shape of a strip. Hahaha. In addition, we live downtown where they have a Monday morning and evening walking street/market, a Thursday morning second-hand market, and Friday evening second-hand market. AND, they regularly have a night bazaar and mini-themed events by our school. ANDDD Rayong has more than that, but this is just what I’ve been to.
// Judging by appearances
I felt like when I lived in well-trodden towns, locals started to become accustomed to Asian Americans and/or ‘Asians who speak good English’ expats and travelers. Over here though, not so much. Living here reminds me of those early expat days when folks stared at me in shock, assumed I was native Chinese or Japanese if their Thai went over my head, or if my Thai was too remedial.
Recently, a cashier at 7-11 got angry at me for our miscommunications. The BF remarked on that incident because it was a little shocking how condescending she was towards me, but I shrugged it off, I’m so used to it. Instead, the whole thing just reminded me of the expectations people have of me because of the way I look.
And no, I’m not asking for your pity. It’s just if a foreigner speaks Thai, they are congratulated and praised by their attempts. If I speak Thai, then I’m often looked at like a moron, or they plow on through like I’m a native. Not exactly the most encouraging of responses. Everyday folks are not language teachers, but I still make the time to study regularly.
In a tourist town, they are thrilled that you are trying and that you know some key phrases. Over here I can get hard looks, but some of the people I repeatedly interact with are starting to get used to me. (Just so you are aware of it, not all expats learn Thai (it’s hard!)).
So, here you are. Too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both. – Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Questions for Ada
// Other things to consider //
On paper (or screen), it might seem like I don’t like Rayong, or that Rayong isn’t a good fit, but that’s not the case. I’m happy here. So this exercise is interesting because the things I love about a town don’t necessarily correspond to contented living. Let’s take a closer look why.
// Work, work, work, work, work
I like my job. At this point, I’ve worked at schools that had great facilities and others that barely cut the cake. Rayong isn’t the best, but it isn’t the worst, not by a long shot. It’s a small school, too, but that’s okay. I’m teaching adults more often and the manager is solid gold.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t had to make micro-adjustments because I’ve had. For a while there, I felt like that’s all I was doing, but that has to do with the fact that I’ve changed branches, cities, and that the school has made changes itself. But I’m doing alright, folks.
// I’m on my way, home sweet home
Chiang Rai and Siem Reap are small cities and were challenging to find good places to live. The first time we moved to CR we encountered the nightmare landlord and then after we moved the nightmare living situation in which there was constant construction in the building.
In Siem Reap, we lived in two apts in the same building, but there were multiple issues, including a landlord that liked to charge us more for electricity (the same thing happened in CR) which is a common practice and complaint among us expats. Eventually, we found a great landlord and a decent place – location, location, location.
In Rayong, I had a feeling we’d do better based on the sheer numbers of apartments available near work. I think there are folks living here during the work week and then heading to their home towns for the weekend, or maybe they travel to and from Bangkok frequently. Whatever the case is, I’m grateful for the choices.
So we got lucky or maybe our time to get lucky had finally arrived because we love our living space. We got side by side apts that are connected by a ‘foyer’ and front door because one or two bedroom apts are hard to come by. It really is the best of both worlds where we have our own privacy, but we can visit each other without going outside. We look out at the pool. I can look out at the sky. I have a pleasant view, and we have lots of plants on our balconies.
// Final thoughts //
Not all those who wander are lost. – J.R.R. Tolkien
Despite the past year and a half of a lot of moving and changes, I’m finally feeling more settled. An expats life (and let’s face it, life in general), hinges on key things being just right, so I don’t want to take things for granted. I’m not exactly holding my breath, but I’m not so naïve as to believe that things will remain the same.
But here’s a few more things worth mentioning:
- Because Rayong is a business hub, the electricity and Internet has so far been more reliable.
- When the North was going through a horrendous burning season and apocalyptic pollution, we were enjoying relatively clean air.
- Immigration is not busy because we don’t have the droves of expats and tourists.
- Something I experienced in college towns in the U.S. was the lack of higher wages because the assumption is you can get college kids at lower ones. I think this also applies to these tourist/popular cities in regards to expat supply and demand.
- Living off-the-beaten track gives me the opportunity be a part of everyday Thai living. There is nothing here that is catered to me, the foreigner, not really anyhow. This is quite different in tourist places and a strange realization.
Lastly, I’m looking forward to traveling around this part of Thailand. So far we’ve gone to Chantaburi (and I probably won’t write about it until I’ve gone again. I don’t like writing about a place unless I’ve had at least a couple of experiences, if I can help it.) and Koh Samed, the closest island. I’m also hoping to stick around!
What’s your experience with tourist and non-tourist cities?