Six months following my return to the U.S. after a year spent abroad in Thailand, I still find myself incredibly nostalgic for this glorious and anomalous Southeast Asian country.
I’ve spent several years living abroad, and arriving in Thailand I didn’t fall head over heels the way I did in Europe. It took a little bit of time to appreciate and fall in love with Thailand, but being able to eventually assimilate to a culture that was nothing like my own inspired an even deeper and greater veneration by the time my stay came to an end.
I could write 10,000 words about the reasons fellow wanderers should visit Thailand, but the ones detailed below are the aspects of the country that stood out most to me. If you’re looking for reasons to visit the Land of Smiles (I’ll explain this, too), then I hope this article finds you well.
1. It’s called the Land of Smiles
Perhaps because people can’t stop smiling when they’re traveling through Thailand, the country has been deemed the Land of Smiles. Historically, though, the country gave itself this name in order to hopefully attract tourists for its pristine white sandy beaches, affordable travel costs, and overwhelmingly friendly locals.
Though this name was initially used as a marketing tool, it undeniably holds some truth. While Thailand has an apparent wealth inequality, its people seem to be content and happy with life. Based on my observations while living in Thailand, I believe this is due in part to their background in Buddhism.
The Buddhist religion is rooted in reaching enlightenment and happiness, something that can only be done by ridding oneself of cravings. To put this in laymen’s terms, Buddhists believe you should be happy with what you have and you shouldn’t need more than what life has to offer at its core. Though this is my own interpretation of reasons Thailand might be called the Land of Smiles, it’s one I find truthful and sensible.
2. Its celebrated (and bizarre) annual festivals and holidays
Thailand is home to some of the most unique annual festivals and holidays, namely Songkran and Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
Songkran is the Thai New Year’s national holiday, celebrated annually from Apr. 13-15. Since Songkran falls during Thailand’s hottest month of the year, Thai people celebrate their new year a little bit differently than the rest of the world: with a giant, three-day-long water fight.
It’s guaranteed that during Songkran, every single Thai person in the nation will be out on the street, soaking each other with balloons, water guns, buckets and anything they can get their hands on.
Songkran is Thailand’s most famous holiday, and if you’re wondering when is a good time to visit Thailand, you may want to consider April for this reason.
Celebrated primarily by local Chinese communities, Phuket Vegetarian Festival, or Nine Emperor Gods Festival, is nothing like the name implies.
Unusual religious rituals during this nine-day festival include body mutilation, specifically by impaling the cheeks, arms, face, legs, and back with anything from syringes to knives, swords, and axes. If you have a weak stomach or faint at the sight of blood, this festival is not for you.
3. Its world-renowned cuisine
It’s no surprise that tourists flock to Thailand because of its world-renowned cuisine. This is arguably one of the top reasons people head to the Land of Smiles in the first place. Thai cuisine is so tantalizing and eclectic, you should be able to travel the country for at least two weeks without ever repeating a meal.
Bisa Myles of Myles to Travel speaks for many when she praises the uniqueness of Thai cuisine. “My favorite country for food is Thailand,” she says. “It’s probably not a surprise to people. My favorite dish to eat while I was there was the papaya salad. I never had it before in the US and haven’t been able to find it in any Thai restaurants.”
Caressed with a spicy flare and an array of powerful flavors, Thai food has a handful of essential ingredients that can be found in several of its principal dishes, including ginger, galangal, Thai basil leaves, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro, fish sauce, coconut, lemongrass and red-hot Thai chilis.
One of my personal favorite Thai dishes is pad kee mao, otherwise known as “drunken noodles.” Kee mao, like tom yum, is a type of flavoring that can be incorporated into various noodle dishes, made with soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, chopped garlic, fresh black pepper pods and holy basil.
While in Thailand, you can choose to order sen yai pad kee mao, made with a wide rice noodle, or mama pad kee mao, made with Chinese-style spiral wheat noodles. You can also choose what type of meat you would like with any Thai dish by adding the word at the end. For example, sen yai pad kee mao gai would be “drunken noodles with chicken.” The phonetic spellings of meat in Thailand are as follows:
- Gai– chicken
- Goong– shrimp
- Mu krub– crispy pork
- Krub– regular pork
- Tao hu– tofu
- Jey– vegetarian
Want to eat like a local while traveling Thailand? Check out 11 Foods To Try In Thailand for a more detailed guide on the country’s best eats.
4. Acceptance of transgender community
If there’s one thing other countries around the world can learn from Thai culture, it’s their acceptance of its transgender community, formally referred to as kathoeys.
Today, metropolitan cities in Thailand such as Bangkok are performing two to three gender operations per week, with more than 3,500 GRSs over the past 30 years.
There are several popular Thai models, singers, and movie stars that are kathoeys, and the country hosts several transgender beauty contests and pageants. The most famous of these is Miss Tiffany’s Universe, Pattaya’s annual transgender beauty contest that has taken place since 1984.
Another leading transgender superstar in Thailand, Parinya Charoenphol, known informally as Nong Toom, is a Thai boxer, former Muay Thai champion, model and actress.
While I was studying for a teaching certificate in Hua Hin, we had several culture classes that discussed various norms throughout Thailand. One thing they talked to our class about, in particular, was Thailand’s prominent transgender community. They told us that while teaching in Thailand, for example, if we ever decided to split the class into “boys” and “girls,” not to be surprised if we were to see several of the boys choose to walk over to the girl’s side.
I remember thinking how beautiful this was, that even at such juvenile ages, school children in Thailand didn’t think twice about classmates that were transgender. The rest of the world has a lot of work to do when it comes to the acceptance of transgender men and women, and we can look to Thailand as a model, yet another great reason to visit and fall in love with the Land of Smiles.
5.,6.,7. Pristine beaches, ideal weather, and affordable prices
Even Thailand’s coldest month (December) sees average temperatures around 79°F; with 2,000 miles of coastline and approximately 1,400 islands, it makes for an ideal tropical getaway year round.
Thailand has some of the world’s most stunning, pristine, white sandy beaches, including Patong, Phi Phi Islands, Ao Nang, Railay Beach, Ko Samui, Pattaya, Karon, Ko Lanta, Ko Phangan and many more.
Beyond its immaculate beaches and idyllic weather, Thailand is an ideal destination for those on a budget.
If you eat at local restaurants, you can get any meal for about 30-60 THB, equivalent to about $1-3 USD. Hour-long massages can be found for as little as 180 THB, or $6 USD. Even the swankiest of accommodations can go for as little as $45 a night. While airfare may be expensive depending on your departure location, you’ll unquestionably make up for this cost during your travels.
“The most beautiful and affordable city I’ve visited is Chiang Mai, Thailand,” Bisa Myles says. “I stayed four nights in a hotel for $134. The food is very cheap. My favorite thing about it is the combination of mountains and city views.”
8. Its exuberant nightlife
Cities like Bangkok, Phuket, and Pattaya boast some of the best walking streets for nightlife in Thailand, teeming with bars, restaurants, cabaret shows, street vendors, massage parlors, tattoo shops, and much, much more.
Bangkok is often referred to as Sin City, and if you’re looking for some naughty-nightlife hotspots, head to Khao San Road, Soi Cowboy, Nana Plaza, Patpong, or Sukhumvit.
A popular destination for backpackers, Ko Phangan island hosts the Full Moon Party, an all-night beach party on the night of, before, or after every full moon.
9. Its blend of tradition and modernity
One of my greatest takeaways from Thailand is its peculiar blend of tradition and modernity. You can look in one direction and gaze upon a centuries-old Buddhist temple; you can look the other way and see a modern skyscraper soaring 1,000 feet into the muggy sky.
To me, Thailand always had this unexplained contrast between old and new, conservative and liberal. Thailand was almost like an oxymoron but in the most beautiful of ways.
Rooted in Buddhist religion and culture, Thailand is still very set in its ways. Traditional and modest are a few adjectives that come to mind when thinking about Thai culture. Nevertheless, Thailand has one of the highest prostitution rates and one of the most bustling nightlives in the world, offering a variety of sinful activities. The difference between night and day in Thailand is astonishing, and I always found this very strange.
As mentioned above, Thai people are extremely accepting of their transgender community, something that I always thought would contradict a country so deeply rooted in religion. Although I didn’t totally understand it, I loved this fact about the country.
If you let it, Thailand can open your eyes to a new world and teach you many things you didn’t know before. Thailand is more than just a tourist destination or tropical getaway, it’s a country with thousands of years of incredible history and some of the most welcoming people in the world.
If you weren’t sure about visiting Thailand before, we hope this article helped convince you why you should. It’s time to go and book that trip to the wonderful Land of Smiles. Happy Trails!