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We Have Changed: Returning to Thailand in 2019


My latest trip to South East Asia promised to be different than those I had taken in the past. I expected that Thailand would have changed over the previous ten years, just as I had become more gray since I had last sweated in the tropical humidity. Perhaps the most significant change was one that I hadn't spent much time thinking about. I was traveling with my friend Colleen who was not only quite a bit younger than me, but because of her Vietnamese heritage, she looked Thai to locals. We were quite cavalier about what that might mean before we left, but once we were travelling together we had to develop strategies in order to avoid the judgemental looks and sly comments.

Thailand had changed a lot. Most of the tourists were Chinese, who blended better than the westerners culturally, and the Thai tourism industry, ever flexible, had compensated. The sellers were picking up a few words in Mandarin and posting signs in both English and Chinese. The country might also have appeared different because I was ten years older than when I had gone with my girlfriend at the time. In those years I had sprouted more gray hair, and felt a corresponding dip in my energy level. Where I once appeared as a young hippy wandering the world, I now looked like an old man from the west, and in Thailand, that meant only one thing to both the tourists and the locals.

Another aspect of how I clashed with the other tourists, or at least their expectations, was likely my increased class consciousness. I carried my imprinted social class a little more than I did when I was younger, perhaps, and that meant the western tourists who were rich enough to travel overseas eyed me a little more than askance. They could tell, just as middle class Canadians could, that I didn't belong in their social milieu; that was no longer hidden by my chance resemblance to the hippies they saw protesting on television. I tried speaking to a few tourists only to receive blank stares in return, or more commonly, no acknowledgement that I had even spoken. I began to feel as though I were invisible, although the sellers had no trouble distinguishing me from the locals and the prices rose accordingly.

The most profound change came from the way Colleen and I were treated, as an older man and a young, Thai-looking woman traveling together. We were careful not to touch each other--it was too hot anyway--or to act in any fashion that might encourage the perception. I avoided the strange possessive and domineering behaviour of the old men who had come to Thailand for prostitution, and Colleen both gave up trying to speak Thai and spoke English louder in public.

We managed to negotiate the perception others had of us, but it took a toll on our relationship. I thought Colleen came away from that experience with firmer instructions on who she should pick as her friends, and slightly less patience with our relationship, and that struck a sour note in what otherwise was a good trip together. The full effect of our travels together was yet to be determined, for we knew her life would change again when she returned to Manitoba, but it remained to be seen if we could return to the carefree days of lounging around and watching got-talent videos on YouTube.

In that way, this book is an examination of our evolving relationship just as much as it is the story of a man in his fifties reporting on how much Thailand had changed in a decade.

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