I realize this could possibly come off as bitter, but my overall feeling of Thailand is that it was once an exotic place that has been turned into a mini, low budget Disney world attraction that simultaneously caters to the sex, drugs and alcohol crowd. As if at one point in time they became aware of how interestingly rich their culture and geographical possessions were and decided to invite people to come and charge them to share the experience. Some time passes and younger generations grow up and start working and have only known it all as just a business. So being there today very much comes off that way. As a business, not a truly unique experience.
Of course I'm not saying there was a complete absence of genuine and interesting experiences, just that some of the local people there felt inappropriately dispassionate about what I saw around them. It may just be that I have the benefit of living outside their world and not having to pander to tourists for a living. But it still supports the argument that whatever your daily routine is, unless you love doing it and would do it without being paid, you will probably become apathetic about it, regardless if it's in paradise.
For example we hopped in a cab and took a winding road to go bungee jumping outside of town and when we arrived and talked with an Aussie who worked there. He seemed like a cool enough guy, tanned and tatted up. But he seemed terrifically bored about being there. In the middle of the Thai jungle, helping people do something they generally only do once in a lifetime. And he kept trying to up-sell us the DVD video of our experience. The bungee jumping itself was ridiculously fun, over a lake and as I said, in the middle of the jungle. You haven't truly tempted fate until you've voluntarily chosen to jump off a flimsy crane that's whipping around under Thailand's ominous rainy-season skies in the middle of a jungle.
Not all situations were met with such apathy and feigned disinterest though. We took a longboat out to what was quite literally, a floating island where a few thousand people lived. Our guide was a teenage girl who wore a pink Winnie the Pooh sweater and who had one of the most genuine smiles I've seen. The people who lived on the island had incredibly difficult lives where both play and work was done on top of stilted platforms in the middle of the ocean. The majority of the island was Muslim and focused on selling cheap jewelry and souvenirs to the tourists they'd bring in on the longboats from the main island. Transvestites slinked around with monkeys and would put them on your shoulder, be almost too friendly petting both you and the monkey, then take the monkey off and expect to be given money for the services rendered. As I stumbled over the soft, soggy wood on the man-made island and explored the areas where they actually lived, it started to rain again. Water was leaking through an endless number of cracks and holes overhead. The rain seemed to be leaking out of even the walls. Those who lived there must have a system though because through my exploration I was soon soaked and everyone else who was local was noticeably dry. This came to be my quick visual litmus test for who was local and who wasn't (though, being honest, it really wasn't that hard to tell). Only a handful of people on the island that were locals had no agenda. I had come to realize that the interesting ones were the people who didn't rely on selling things to you. These were the people who ran or worked in hotels and restaurants, gave tours, drove taxis and tuk-tuk's or who worked there but were not working at the time.
When we were in Phang-Nga, we stopped at a place called the monkey cave. The whole grounds and entrance to the cave was densely populated with monkeys bounding in all different directions. One of them jumped on us and climbed up our body like it was climbing a fleshy tree. The only way to get rid of them seemed to be to throw something, anything, to the ground for them to inspect and they'd temporarily leave you alone. Lens caps and food wrappers seemed to work just fine. The only real danger being when they found it interesting enough to run off with and you actually liked what you had offered up.
I waited until I got to Thailand to ride an elephant. I don't know why, I guess it seemed like it would be the most appropriate place to do it? I found the whole experience incredibly depressing. The elephant lumbered up the hill as if he had already done it a hundred times that day. It was like he was on Mars. Gravity compounded his own cumbersome weight and all the tourists he carried sitting on his bulky wooden saddle as he followed his set path, outlined by his own droppings. If being mundane through repetition made it worse for him, I do not know. I've always heard about elephant's intelligence, so I don't think the repetition could have helped. Either way, when it was done and waiting for a cab ride back to the beach area and our hotel, I came across another elephant. There was a man calmly and lazily resting in a hammock next to the other elephant, who from what I could tell, was not happy to be tied up. He would shift around nervously, extending his huge trunk towards me as if he wanted something. I looked back to the man resting in the hammock but knew any attempts to ask if the elephant was okay would prove pointless. I snapped a picture just before the elephant offered up a loud bellow at me for what I could only guess was frustration at my not helping improve his situation. There was a wild look in his eyes, and soon enough my cab came to take me back to our hotel.
I walked past an open air store where a man was painting in the front. I talked with him for a few minutes and he would paint snapshots of themselves people dropped off there for him to recreate. You could see the rest of his shop was where his passion was, painting famous scenes from current movies he loved, time magazine covers he'd read, still lifes he'd seen, nude women he'd been with, all kinds of great stuff.
Seeing the beach at Phuket for the first time was nothing less than having one of those specifically intense but fleeting moments. The wind was madly thrashing palm tree leaves and any semi-movable object it could find. The clouds overhead moved twice as fast as any I had seen before (except for maybe in Seattle). A local guy ran by me with a surf board in hand down towards the ocean. I stood watching everything happening around me and just taking it all in. It was pretty fantastic for those first few moments, but the elements soon became more an obstacle than something to be enjoyed.
I must admit being in Thailand made me fully realize why Alex Garland wrote The Beach. Tourism wields a mighty sword. Did I mention all the transvestites, wild dogs and a tattoo shop that had an open pen full of rabbits in the front of it's store? One of them was sitting in a leather barber chair cleaning itself, stopped to look at me as if I were the strange one (which very well may be) and proceeded to continue cleaning itself. Thailand may have been insincere at times, but was an exotic and strange experience that was still definitely worth the trip.