Ryan Stannard, 126
For the majority of Peace Corps Volunteers in Thailand, this is our first time living in Asia. Asia, a term that tends to be oversimplified in the United States, is a complex, diverse, and historic region of the world. Thailand is part of Asia, but it’s distinctly Thai, full of Thai-ness, with its own Thai value system that was promoted in order to unify the country, passed down from generation to generation to this day. It can be extremely difficult to deal with, as a foreigner in Thailand, especially in the areas Peace Corps Volunteers live in. During your two-year service here, you’ll most likely be in need of a break. Why not explore this vast and complex part of the world while you’re living in it to find out how diverse it really is?
The following are places within one flight from Thailand, can be reached using Low Cost Carriers, and have either an inexpensive Visa-on-Arrival system in place or are Visa-Free for American citizens.
How many Americans do you know who have been to Malaysia? Probably not many. Considering it’s one of Thailand’s neighbors, you owe it to yourself to explore this diverse, and distinctly non-Thai location. Malaysia has a mostly Islamic population filled with ethnic Malays. However, like Thailand, there is a distinct Chinese and South Asian minority that have been in Malaysia for generations. All of these groups co-exist and have their own distinct cultures, customs, languages, and food. Malaysia has Sharia Law; not to worry because as non-Muslims you are subject to secular Malaysian law under a one country / two systems policy. From the diverse, bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur, to the smaller sleepier islands of Penang and Langkawi, Malaysia has something for everyone, including a good healthy dose of diversity and a mixture of cultures. The Malaysian Ringit is currently at an all time low, so your Baht or Dollar will go further at the moment. Don’t worry about the language barrier as most people will be able to communicate reasonably well in English as they actually learn it in school. For real.
Flights on AirAsia and LionAir depart frequently from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur daily. Americans are visa free and are issued a 90-day stamp upon arrival.
Singapore is one of the smallest city-states on the planet and arguably one of the richest. Gaining its independence from Malaysia fifty years ago, this former trading outpost has been transformed into one of the most successful countries to date. Singapore is made up of 4 distinct groups; Chinese, Malays, Indians, and other random business people from across the globe. English is the official language, and you’ll have no problem communicating. The city is clean, almost sterile. That being said, it’s incredibly easy to get around by metro. There are buses everywhere, and clean vendor/motorcycle-free sidewalks for miles around, not to mention parks and gardens. Singapore is considered to be an expensive city, but if you know where to go, it can actually be quite cheap. Eating at ‘hawker centres’ (semi outdoor local food courts) isn’t just a great way to save money, it’s the perfect way to experience some of the best food in this part of the world.
Flights on Jetstar, AirAsia, NokScoot, TigerAir and ThaiLionAir depart frequently from Bangkok daily. Americans are visa free and are issued a 90 day stamp upon arrival.
Coming from primarily Buddhist countries that surround it, it’s a bit of a shock to arrive in the Philippines and realize that everyone is Catholic. That being said, this country does share a lot of similarities with Thailand in terms of development. There is a distinct gap between the elite and the majority in terms of income and education. There is “local” culture, and modern “mall” culture. The rural areas are underserved while the larger cities hold most of the wealth and power. You will see older “farangs” with younger Filipinos as well. That being said, the islands have a deep colonial history from the Spanish colonialists to the American and Japanese occupations . The people speak Tagalog, English, and a mixture of the two known as Taglish. Communication was never an issue. Some of the islands are spectacular as well, especially Palawan in the far west.
There are daily flights on AirAsia and Cebu Pacific Airways to both Manila and Cebu. Americans are visa free and get a 17 day stamp upon arrival.
I feel as if everyone should visit Cambodia to prove Thai people wrong about what they assume Cambodia is. In my experience the level of English is much higher, at least in the tourism industry, the dual pricing system is justified given the level of poverty, and the people are frankly friendlier than they are here. If anything a trip to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat is more than worth the trip, as you’ll need at least two or three days to experience all the temples and complexes. The capital city of Phnom Penh is quite the contrast to Bangkok as well; the buildings are much older, French looking given the colonial period, and there aren’t very many people by comparison either. Take the time to visit at least the SD21 Prison Museum and/or the killing fields and educate yourself about the genocide that took place there under the Khmer Rouge. Return to Thailand and ask your coworkers about it as well; most likely they will have no idea what you’re talking about.
Flights on AirAsia to either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh depart daily. Alternatively you can take a bus from Mo-Chit to Siem Reap for about 750 baht. The visa is 30 USD at the border, or alternatively you can do an e-visa online for about 40 USD and skip the lines at the airport or crossing.
Hong Kong and/or Macau
It’s important to remember that while these two places technically are in China, they are still self-governed under a one-country/two-systems policy. The good news is, they are democratic (though that may change) and are still visa-free for Americans. Hong Kong is a bit like Singapore in that it’s very modern, has food from all over the world, and everyone for the most part is bilingual. However, Hong Kong is a lot more crowded, has vast tower blocks for miles, beautiful mountains, and a surprising amount of national parks and small islands making for a very dynamic experience all the way around. The MRT is quite inexpensive and will get you anywhere you need to go, and the food is delicious whether it be in a five-star hotel or a local place in an alley off of a main street. It also boasts one of the best night views from Victoria Peak, something that shouldn’t be missed.
Macau can be reached by fast ferry from Hong Kong in under two hours (You need a passport to exit and enter). Old colonial architecture from the days of the Portuguese still remain to this day and make for some very interesting walks around the old part of the city. The gaudy casinos by the port offer an interesting juxtaposition; don’t dismiss them as this part of the world is said to rival Las Vegas in terms of gambling power.
AirAsia, Hong Kong Express, and Thai Smile all fly to Hong Kong or Macau daily from Bangkok. Americans get 90 days in Hong Kong on arrival, and 30 days in Macau on arrival.
Taiwan (Republic of China)
This is arguably the country that most Americans tend to confuse with Thailand the most. What makes this even better is that Americans don’t really know anything about Taiwan as its off the beaten path for most Western tourists in general. Taiwan isn’t China. Anyone who wants to dispute this notion clearly hasn’t been there or looked into the fact that they fought a bloody war against Japanese colonial rule, and a war against the Communists who now control what is known as the People’s Republic of China. That being said, you won’t find many Embassies in Taiwan because of policies towards the PRC, rather “special mission offices” which represent foreign interests in Taiwan. Culturally, Taiwan offers a lot more than its Communist counterpart, primarily because it still retains its old Chinese traditions in terms of how society is structured, with a fair bit of Japanese influence as well.
The people are very polite, friendly, and while communication in English can be a bit difficult, you will almost always have someone go out of their way to help you out. Transport around the island is very inexpensive, efficient, and clean. A metro ticket in Taipei costs exactly the same as a metro ticket in Bangkok, and the differences in service and range are staggering. Dim Sum, Beef Noodle Soup, Dumplings of all kinds; they’re all here and you can eat all of it with the knowledge that food safety and standards of cleanliness are actually there. The night markets are fantastic and shouldn’t be missed either. Hotel rooms tend to be more expensive than in South-East Asia so budget accordingly especially in Taipei. The western side of the island is where most of the people are due to its flat terrain. Head out east and you’ll see mountains and cliffs that jut out into the pacific ocean. Renting a car and driving around the rural areas and mountains is also possible if you have an international driver’s license from AAA. I’ve been to this island nation 4 times on proper trips and I still want to go back again and again. Don’t miss it.
Flights on TigerAir Taiwan depart from Bangkok once or twice a day direct to Taipei Taoyuan Airport. Americans are visa free (unlike the PRC with a USD 160 visa) and get a 90 day stamp upon arrival.
Thanks to the advent of “long haul Low Cost Carriers”, countries like Korea and Japan are now within easy reach of Thailand in terms of budget. Korean culture is quite popular amongst the youth in Thailand these days, you may have even heard your kids singing a song and thought “Hey! That doesn’t sound like a cat dying? What gives?” If you’re not into K-pop, you might be thinking, why should I spend my time there? Well if you’re tired of the constant heat it’s worth noting that Korea has four proper seasons, from bitterly cold winters to mild springs and autumns. The food is some of the most interesting and distinct cuisine I’ve ever had as well. From the standard Korean BBQ, to special rice dishes like bi bin bap and vegetable pancakes like peju, there’s always something new to try, and 99% of the time it will be delicious. The best part are the standard 8 – 12 side dishes that come with every meal, and are always refilled free of charge upon request. While Korean Beer may be of…Budweiser quality, the Soju is very inexpensive, delicious and guaranteed to give you a fun night out. Communication can be a bit of an issue so bring a dictionary or app. Most places also have a tourism center where they will be able to help you out with questions in English. Seoul and Busan are very modern cities with a lot of history as well. Public transportation is very cheap, clean and efficient, even in the more rural areas. From Seoul you can also take a day trip tour to the DMZ between North and South Korea and learn more about the reason that the two countries are still technically at war. I know a lot of us fly through Korea on our way back to the states, but it’s surely worth a visit on its own, even if it’s only for 3 or 4 days.
Flights can be had on Thai AirAsiaX, or Jeju Air from Bangkok to Seoul Incheon daily. Americans get 90 days upon arrival.
Japan has a reputation for being expensive, and hotel rooms being outrageously overpriced. These days that isn’t really the case, as the Yen has now dropped to the point where the dollar is quite strong again. Hotel rooms may be on the cramped side, but they will be clean, have modern bathrooms with great water pressure, and sometimes have toilets with buttons on them! If you think you liked Japanese food in the states, Japan will effectively ruin it for you by comparison, especially sushi (even the cheap stuff at conveyer belt places!). Communication can be a bit of an issue, but, like in Korea, if you find a tourist information desk they will be able to help you. Local people, while they might not be able to communicate in English, have no problem reading it and will help you get where you need to go. Inter-city transportation within Japan can be very expensive so it’s a good idea to either get a country or regional rail pass through Japan Railways before you depart. Transportation within cities is very reasonable by comparison, and much cheaper than taking taxis.
The inexpensive flights can be had from Bangkok to Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka which is on the third largest island of Kyushu. There are a smattering of sights around each of these places and can easily be divided into three separate trips. From Tokyo you can see Mt. Fuji, stereotypically modern Japan in Yokohama, and other famous areas in the mountains outside such as Nikko. From Osaka you can visit the ancient capital of Kyoto, see the great park in Nara, and the historical and modern port city of Kobe. Fukuoka is on the smaller side in terms of Japanese cities, but is quite famous for its Hakata Ramen and has a host of sights to see as well. From Fukuoka you can get to Nagasaki in 2 hours, visit volcanoes in Kumamoto and Kagoshima, and go on beautiful hikes as well. I could write a lot more about this country but it would honestly fill up at least 5 pages. Visiting the memorial site of the world’s first atomic bomb detonation in Hiroshima shouldn’t be missed either; you can get there from either Osaka or Fukuoka by Shinkansen (HSR) within about two hours from either direction.
There are daily flights from Bangkok to Fukuoka on Jetstar Asia, and Bangkok to Osaka Kansai and Tokyo Narita on Thai AirasiaX. Americans are visa free and get 90 days upon arrival.
Getting out of Thailand during your two year service isn’t only good for your sanity, but it can also help broaden your experiences here and redefine what this part of the world means to you. Sadly, it can also make you realize just how far behind Thailand is, especially when compared to its neighbors within ASEAN. But hey, that’s why we’re here right?