Thailand then and now: How Bangkok, Koh Samui and Phuket have changed

Thailand, Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, travel, tourist, beach, tourism, trip, AsiaReturning to Thailand after 20 years

Returning to Thailand after a 20 year gap, I found Bangkok to be almost unrecognizable. I enjoyed the modern conveniences, stunning resorts and bizarre — and gruesome — Phuket Vegetarian Festival. But missed a sense of authentic Thai culture.

THE FIRST TIME I WENT Thailand, I was new to travelling and every plane ride, every hotel, was beyond exciting. I was living in Japan at the time with a former boyfriend and we decided to visit Thailand before returning to Canada. At the time Thailand had been through some internal troubles and tourism was down. Plus, it was late August. We almost felt we had the place to ourselves.

Our goal was Koh Samui. I had done some research, looked at Koh Samui vacation rentals and other options, and chose the island paradise because it seemed to fall in that sweet spot of well connected, with good infrastructure – but not yet spoilt by over development.

Photograph of Mariellen Ward of Breathedreamgo travelling in Bangkok, Thailand 1992

Me at lunch on the Chayo Phraya River in Bangkok in the 1990s

But first, we landed in Bangkok. Taking advantage of the heavily reduced prices, we stayed at what was, at the time, one of the world’s leading hotels, The Oriental. This hotel, on the Chao Phraya River, evoked all the romance and adventure of far-flung travel to “exotic” places that I craved. It had been the hotel of choice for authors such as Somerset Maugham (one of my all-time favourite writers), Graham Greene, and Joseph Conrad – each of whom have suites named after them.

I fondly remember having breakfast on the hotel’s terrace restaurant, on the river, and feeling very worldly for the first time in my life. Finally, at about age 30, I was a world traveller! Here’s an old post about my early travels in the Far East.

Bangkok was a rambling, dusty town, with lots of traffic and noise. The city held some wondrous sights, like the Grand Palace and khlongs, but it wasn’t a top tourist destination back then. I liked our Chao Phraya River cruise most of all, and seeing the Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn, silhouetted against the darkening sky.

From there, we went to Koh Samui where we stayed on the beach in a beautiful resort overflowing with gardens and flowers. We swam in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, ate spicy Thai food under the stars, and had Thai massages in the sand. It was a glorious vacation, one of the best I’d ever had.

I left Thailand, back then, with nothing but good memories about the warmth of the people and the culture we had experienced as tourists staying in beautiful hotels and resorts. We made a conscious effort to respect the culture and we were rewarded with friendship. Our resort manager sent us a Christmas card several months later!

Thailand, Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, travel, tourist, beach, tourism, trip, Asia

The Grand Palace, Bangkok, is the top tourist attraction in the city

Thailand in 2015 for TBEX Asia

Fast forward 20 years to 2015, when I finally returned to Thailand as a speaker with TBEX Asia (Travel Bloggers Exchange) in Bangkok. I found the city unrecognizable. It had boomed into a modern metropolis with a very western imprint. With modern conveniences like the above ground BTS Skytrain and below ground MRT Subway, huge glitzy malls selling western designer wear, and a raft of luxury hotels sporting sexy rooftop bars, Bangkok seemed like an Asian super city.

I stayed in several hotels in Bangkok. Each were completely different. First up was the elegant Oriental Residence, where I had a corner suite and felt like a movie star. I loved the tasteful and muted décor, and the rooftop pool-with-a-view was divine.

From there, I moved to the Amari Watergate Bangkok, a large and popular place smack dab in the centre of the city, built for comfort and speed rather than romance and adventure. This hotel had everything: a spa, outdoor swimming pool, excellent Thai restaurant, and my favourite spot, a club lounge with outdoor terrace affording spectacular views of a city pulsating with life and light.

Thailand, Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, travel, tourist, beach, tourism, trip, Asia

Bangkok skyline at dusk in Lumpini park shows old and new

During the TBEX conference I stayed in the Hua Chang Heritage Hotel, another ultra-modern place that looked like a life-sized Barbie luxury playhouse. White vinyl furniture, glowing pink plastic fixtures, shag carpet, and a big tub in the middle of the room. While all of these hotels were beautiful, comfortable, and efficient, they lacked the old-world charm I remembered from my visit to the city 20 years before.

After the TBEX conference, I travelled to Phuket on a hosted “fam” (familiarization) trip, organized by Tourism Thailand. I chose this tour because of the opportunity to stay at a 5-star resort and to witness the astounding Vegetarian Festival. Otherwise, I would have been very reluctant to choose Phuket, knowing its reputation as an over-developed tourism hotspot.

I have to admit, though, I loved staying at the 5-star SALA Phuket Resort and Spa. I had my own villa and pool and once again, felt like a movie star. Going out on a yacht to experience snorkelling in the ocean was fabulous, and I also enjoyed a massage at Sukko and cooking classes at The Blue Elephant. The entire trip was memorable.

Thailand, Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, travel, tourist, beach, tourism, trip, Asia, Vegetarian Festival

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival procession

The star attraction, however, was the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a Chinese celebration to honour the gods through abstinence from meat and other stimulants. Over the years it has become a spectacular event, attracting thousands, who either take part in or watch the ceremonies held to evoke the gods. These include puncturing and piercing the face, and withstanding an onslaught of firecrackers.

Thailand, Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, travel, tourist, beach, tourism, trip, Asia, Vegetarian FestivalNot for the faint of heart, the Vegetarian Festival has resulted in many injuries and even a few deaths – usually due to the indiscriminate use of firecrackers. I found that it was difficult to get the photos I wanted of the procession while trying to avoid all the firecrackers people were constantly lighting and throwing. It felt like a war zone, and looked like the Zombie Apocalypse. No offence intended, but it was pretty gruesome.

However, at least it was an authentic festival – although it has perhaps been over-blown by its popularity and infamy. The rest of Phuket was over-developed, commercial and mostly unappealing to me. There was very little flavour of authentic Thailand left on the island. One street in Phuket town is preserved as an example of bygone days, but even it seems ingenuous.

Thailand, Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, travel, tourist, beach, tourism, trip, Asia, Vegetarian Festival

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival procession

A call for sustainability

Thailand 20 years apart resulted in two very different experiences. In fact, it felt like a different country. It was partly due to the difference in my trips and the locations I visited, but also due to the changes Thailand has experienced. Many people think that Thailand – with about 32 million inbound visitors a year, almost the entire population of Canada – has been almost ruined by tourism. I have heard there are places in the north that are still worth visiting. But to me, the bloom is off the rose.

I did have a good time, on both my trips to Thailand. I stayed in beautiful places, ate great food, met nice people. But seeing how Thailand changed over the past 20 years was a strong reminder to me that responsible travel and tourism practises are essential to keep this industry on the right track.

So by all means, enjoy Thailand … and also be aware of the impact you have as you travel.

If you have any suggestions or recommendations for responsible travel options in Thailand, please comment below.

Thailand, Phuket, Koh Samui, Bangkok, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, travel, tourist, beach, tourism, trip, Asia

NOTE: My hotel stays and activities during the 2015 trip to Thailand were hosted by the hotels, TBEX and Thailand Tourism. As always, my opinions are my own, my stories are heart-felt and I only make recommendations based on personal experience and with the needs of my readers in mind. This post was brought to you by Luxury Retreats.

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23 Responses to Thailand then and now: How Bangkok, Koh Samui and Phuket have changed

  1. Renuka April 20, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

    Nice to read a blog by you after quite a while 🙂 Sounds like you had a really good time back in the 90s, but now things have changed. I’d like to visit the countryside of Thailand, because that would be untouched by tourism. I’m also curious about its gastronomy. By the way, your 90s picture is equally stunning.

  2. Kat from Canada April 20, 2017 at 10:09 pm #

    I was also in Thailand recently within a 15 year span and was shocked to visit a city I didn’t recognize. It felt entirely different and I loved it. While authenticity of ‘bygone days’ or ‘old world charm’ compete against modernism, I wonder beyond what is best for us as tourists who often want to preserve the charm of the past. I wonder if you have any insight or stats as to whether or not the standard of living has improved for the vast majority of Thais or if there is a wider gap than before? Do tourist dollars spent translate to money for cities like Bangkok where they now enjoy a convienent metro line? Just a thought for consideration.

    • Mariellen Ward April 21, 2017 at 10:24 am #

      These are all good questions Kat, and probably no easy answers. Are the tourist dollars going into the local economy, or to big international hotel chains? Does a higher standard of living make up for losing your sense of culture, your roots? Is the trade-off worth it? There’s a very seamy underside to tourism in Thailand that no one likes to talk about. Bonded labour performing in sex shows, things like that. There’s also crime against tourists. So with the upswing in tourism numbers comes some negative effects.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Celebrating Shakti on International Women’s DayMy Profile

    • Tom May 20, 2017 at 3:55 am #

      Kat, re your “standard of living” question, I’d love to comment on that and Mariellen’s extended subjects, but I really can’t. I’m sitting in my neighborhood coffee shop in Bangkok as I write this. Gov’t censorship has reached an all-time high. I’m not ready to flee (or honker down in a jail) just yet. Maybe that gives you a clue.

  3. Vidyut Rautela April 21, 2017 at 12:09 am #

    You are lucky that you were there 20 years back… this rapid pace of commercialization is ruining the real charm of the Thailand. Same goes for my country as well… India.

    • Mariellen Ward April 21, 2017 at 10:26 am #

      It’s such a balancing act, increasing tourism to help support the local economy and also help visitors get to know and understand a culture — without destroying the very reason they want to go in the first place. This is why concepts of responsible tourism and sustainability need to be considered.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pugdundee Safaris Lodges: Home base for tiger safaris in IndiaMy Profile

  4. Ellie Cleary April 25, 2017 at 7:11 am #

    What a great way to illustrate the contrasts between then and now Mariellen. This is an important topic.

    Thailand for me is one of the most poignant examples of the impact that Tourism can have on a country. For better or worse. I still remember reading ‘The Beach’ as a teenager (ironically the first book I read that really talked about the darker side of tourism) and thought of Thailand as a far away, exotic and inaccessible land – hardly the case anymore.

    I would actively avoid the beach resorts and islands of Phi Phi, Phuket, Samui – pretty much all the islands have become overrun in terms of number of visitors, and construction has been very poorly managed. Resorts are built without proper waste systems meaning that sewage goes straight out into the sea in 9/10 cases, and there is no refuse collection for garbage. Plastic – e.g. water bottles are often just buried or burned on the islands as there is nowhere else for them to go.

    If visiting islands my tips would be to always take a reusable water bottle with you (aluminium or glass) and seek out resorts that have an eco certification or are taking active measures to minimise their environmental impact and support local communities.

    In the North of Thailand, treks provide a wonderful way to see the Thai landscape and more of the culture, but be aware of exploitation issues with both humans (eg. the Long Necked Tribes) and animals (e.g. Elephant “Sanctuaries”). Elephant riding (with or without the seat) is highly contentious and is believed by many to cause suffering to these animals. Unfortunately there has been a dramatic increase in elephant attractions claiming to be “sanctuaries” that aren’t, for marketing purposes. Researching in advance has become all the more important!

    Last but not least trains are a wonderful, cheap and stress free way to explore Thailand – and generate a fraction of the emissions of an aircraft.

    In Thailand it can be really hard work to get “off the beaten path” – everyone seems to want to get you on to the same route as everyone else – but the effort is definitely worth it!

    • Mariellen Ward April 25, 2017 at 10:51 am #

      These are great tips, Ellie, thanks so much. It definitely pays to do your homework and research the options available. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem in the case of responsible tourism and over-run destinations like Thailand.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Why homestays are the best hotel option in IndiaMy Profile

  5. Dave April 25, 2017 at 8:51 am #

    Hi Mariellen, I run a responsible travel company called The Beyond Tourism Co. I also went to Thailand for the first time in 1997 and then returned in 2014 and 2015, so I understand the changes you comment on. But let me assure you that there are still beautiful untouched places if you know where to look, and responsible travel and new communication technologies have made authentic experiences more accessible than they were then.

  6. riya patel May 2, 2017 at 12:37 pm #

    your Article is treat for readers. learn many things from your article as i am planning to visit Thailand in next month. BTW The Phuket Vegetarian Festival procession looks little scary.
    I hope they are not harming them salves

  7. Arianwen May 8, 2017 at 6:52 pm #

    I’m a little surprised to hear this. I visited Bangkok about 10 years apart and didn’t feel like it had changed that much (and I did some extensive sightseeing on foot both times). Perhaps it changed more before my first visit than after, or maybe it’s just that my memory can’t be trusted! I only went to Koh Samui this time around and I found it to be majorly touristy. I can imagine it used to be much more appealing back in the day.
    Arianwen recently posted..Win a Pair of Tickets to This Year’s Rock en Seine Festival!My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward May 11, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

      Thanks Arianwen. My first visit was in the early 90s, long time back … so I think that’s why I saw such huge changes. Possibly 10 years was not enough time. I’m sorry to hear that Koh Samui is now so touristy, that’s disappointing. It was a paradise, back in the day. btw, I love your blog!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Celebrating Shakti on International Women’s DayMy Profile

  8. Miguel May 12, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

    Hi! Thailand is one of my favorite destinations in SEA, but yeah! it has changed a lot.. personally I don’t like Phuket right now. Bangkok has changed but it’s always amazing! Some regions in the north are still pretty untouched.. I traveled around Mae Sariang and loved that part of the country… so wild and beautiful… and I meet like 3 or 4 tourists in 10 days! not common un Thailand, right!

    Thanks for sharing, keep it up!

  9. laxmanchowdary May 15, 2017 at 5:43 am #

    Travel is a very great gift from god and that is what we have learned from your blog. Thanks for such a good write up. Truly an amazing piece of writing.

  10. Luis Adriano May 15, 2017 at 7:05 pm #

    The photos are beautiful and incredible, I’m loving to know your blog. Hugs from Brazil!!

  11. Nicole at Bon Voyage Bombshells May 17, 2017 at 4:45 pm #

    What a beautiful post. It’s easy to say that the thing I love most about Thailand is Thai food and encounters with history and culture, the new and the old, at just about every turn.
    Nicole at Bon Voyage Bombshells recently posted..2-day trip packing list – What’s the minimum you have to take?My Profile

  12. Tom May 20, 2017 at 3:44 am #

    “But to me, the bloom is off the rose.”

    So true. I’m an expat living in Bangkok every day for nearly 15 years (i.e. I don’t come and go on holiday like many do). My first travels here date back to the early 1990’s. Tourism is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more going on here that are following (or possible leading) the trend you observed, and the trend has accelerated in the nearly 2 years since your 2015 visit. I’m preparing to retire and repatriate to rural central Florida where the cost of living is lower and quality of life much higher. If you’re looking for wonderful experiences in 5-star hotels, they’re all the same except Thailand’s are cheaper. If you’re looking for an authentic Southeast Asian experience, try Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam. Cherish your memories from the mid-1990’s. They’re likely gone forever here.

  13. The Van Cave Project May 22, 2017 at 6:50 am #

    What a beautiful insight into Thailand 20 years ago. It is one of our favourite destinations and we’ve definitely noticed this too. When we were in Thailand recently we were discussing how our favourite stretch of Koh Phangan seemed to have sprouted a ton of new establishments between our visits. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Devesh Joshi June 2, 2017 at 2:05 am #

    such powerful contrast. I visited Thailand last year and covered all the places you’ve mentioned here. Planning another visit this year. Perhaps I’ll compare the different in an year and share it on my blog.

  15. Scott June 7, 2017 at 10:14 am #

    I am sure every generation says this, but it sure seems like the 90s was a golden age of international travel, and especially in Southeast Asia.
    Scott recently posted..How to Spend One Day in York EnglandMy Profile

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