The part of Thailand tourists haven't discovered
This article by Ben Groundwater in the Traveller website was so much like the places we take our guests to at Thailand Painting Holidays that I thought I would repost it here.
You can read the original at http://www.traveller.com.au/ubon-ratchathani-province-the-part-of-thailand-tourists-havent-discovered-gowvxz
There was an argument ensuing between my host, Andrew, and the waitress at the little restaurant we'd just been eating at. It was all in Thai, but I had a feeling I knew what it would be about: she'd tried to overcharge us for something, thrown a few extra baht onto the bill to see if she could get away with it.
The row continued for a while until eventually some sort of agreement was reached, money changed hands, and Andrew and I walked back towards his car. "She does it every time," he said to me, shaking his head. "Tries to undercharge me! I told her, I'm paying for everything we ate. But she's always way too nice."
I had to laugh. This was not the Thailand I'd come to know and love. In my Thailand, the Thailand of Bangkok taxi drivers and Koh Pha-Ngan bartenders, you're always on your guard. You're on the lookout for the guy who will try to swindle you out of your money with his dodgy meter or his change-giving sleight of hand. Your ears are pricked up for the guy who'll tell you some tall story about the palace being closed or the hotel going out of business.
- But not up here in Ubon Ratchathani. In the country's north-east people apparently attempt to charge you less than they really should, to do themselves out of making a living in the name of being friendly.
There aren't many tourists in Ubon Ratchathani, which might have something to do with it. There are even fewer about a half-hour drive into the countryside, in the tiny village that Andrew calls home. In fact Andrew was one of the first Westerners to ever set foot in that little rural community when he moved in a few years ago.
Eventually, however, he became part of the furniture, a sight as common as the farmers heading off to the rice paddies each morning, or the women cooking up batches of sticky rice in the open kitchens under their houses.
As a guest of Andrew's, I was another of those privileged few to experience Thai life away from the hustlers and the crowds, from the big cities and the beach resorts, from the tack and the tourist hordes. Instead of lying on a beach that could have been anywhere, or traipsing city streets in search of a shop with air-conditioning, I spent that trip sitting around watching Muay Thai boxing with Andrew's neighbours, and helping his wife prepare the lunchtime salads.
I saw things that very few tourists ever get to see. I was taken to a local restaurant where, seeing two Westerners walk in – possibly the only two Westerners for miles around – the owners scrambled to change the music from the Thai tunes they'd be listening to, to the only Western album they seemed to have on CD. Unfortunately that was Savage Garden, but you can't fault the guys for being friendly.
I witnessed daily life in a rural Thai village. I watched as the workers went off to the rice paddies each morning, carrying their baskets of sticky rice over their shoulders. I sat on a bamboo mat outside the village's only store and drank lao-lao whisky with the owner. I ate a glass-noodle and pork salad that Andrew's wife had made "not very spicy" just for me, and almost passed out from the chilli high.
You don't get to do things like this in a place like Andrew's village without knowing someone like Andrew. I'd been lucky – Andrew had read a few stories of mine online and had invited me to come and share a few days of his remarkable life. But these opportunities aren't limited to people with newspaper columns.
Travel like this is all about having a host, and there are plenty of opportunities out there to meet up with hosts like Andrew. That could be through couchsurfing.com, finding a place to sleep in somewhere obscure and interesting with a generous local. Or it could be through airbnb.com, paying to share a house with someone who can point you in the right directions, or take you into the places you would never be able to visit without a person in the know.
That's the true value of the "sharing economy". It's not the physical things that are being shared, the beds and the cars and the rooms, that are important, but the knowledge and the access being passed on. That's what means the most.
Maybe it's getting into a divey New York bar; maybe it's finding a hidden park in London; or maybe it's making sure no one tries to undercharge you at a restaurant in northern Thailand.