Because Thailand is the only country which we travelled in pieces on and off over a relatively longer period of time, I ironically find it a challenge to well explain. Thailand, uniquely, does not feel as discretely contained enough to summarize as all other countries.
Over the 7 months from November 2002 to June 2003, we experienced Thailand in 5 pieces:
1. Bangkok. - Bangkok was a travel base to which we returned over the 7 months. It was an ideal centre from which to visit Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Japan. Aside from our first time in Bangkok, it was the only place in which we did not have to repeatedly search for a place to stay, seek out where to bank, reconnoiter from where to buy water and toilet paper, hunt from where to gather food, quest for Internet access, scout out for laundry and a tailor, find a place for gM's shave, determine how transportation works, etc. This welcome familiarity, the meeting of our needs within Bangkok's relatively developed infrastructure, and the enthusiastic greetings we received at our regular place to stay made Bangkok feel like our home. We regularly spent time in the Siam Square area, the Thanon Silom area, and the Banglamphu area, commuting among these areas by walking, by the red buses, the blue/creme buses, the air-conditioned buses, the canal taxis on the Khlong Saen Saep canal, and the Skytrain. Bangkok offered us reliable slide film and photography labs, sound medical attention at the Bangkok Nursing Home Hospital, dependable postal service, and accessibility to the Embassies of Myanmar, Laos, Canada, and Austria.
November 2002, we enjoyed the Loi Krathong Festival (the krathongs were beautiful and the fireworks were superior), and in February 2003, we enjoyed Chinese New Year (the lion dance was thrilling). December 2002 / January 2003, we spent New Year's Eve in the World Trade Centre area of Bangkok. For New Year's Eve in Bangkok, there were celebrations in several parts of the city. In all areas, there were 1 or more big stages with singers, Thai dancers, etc. There were all sorts of food stalls, fair games like throw-the-dart-at-the-balloon-for-prizes, and beer gardens. There were countdowns and fireworks. There are 7.5 million people in Bangkok, and it felt like it! This was the first New Year's Eve that we spent with so many people. We spent a large part of the evening squeezing through crowds of people. Since we came to South-East Asia, our Western sense of personal space has decreased dramatically. At that point, we had been to Myanmar where a "full" vehicle did not mean 20 people sitting in the back of a pickup, nor 35 people sitting and standing in the back of the pickup, but 47 people very uncomfortably standing and sitting wedged in, and hanging off the sides. At one point on New Year's Eve, we were caught in a surging crowd where it was out of control enough that we could not maneuver anywhere but where the crowd pushed, and we had to follow everyone with whom we were squeezed because the push from the back was so strong. We finally found a place to stand, and then waited for midnight. At midnight, the digital clock looked like it was being controlled manually instead of automatically because the numbers botched from 59 to 0, with wrong numbers flipping off and on. It did not matter - the thousands and thousands of people counted down, and at midnight, we all cheered! There were fireworks to music. It was an evening to experience.
2. Mainland of Southern Thailand (Hat Yai, Nakhon Si Thammarat, area between Surat Thani and Krabi). - In Nakhon Si Thammarat, I had great fun at the Suchart Subsin Shadow Puppet Workshop where we were given a shadow puppet construction demonstration and a shadow puppet show! Shadow puppets are 2-D cutouts of characters, each on a stick and manipulated behind a cloth screen and in front of a light source. The shadow puppets talk, sing, dance etc. Even without understanding Thai, a shadow puppet show is enthralling.
We took in the scenery while trekking at Khao Sok National Park (west of Surat Thani) and Tharnbok Koranee Marine National Park (north of Krabi), experienced an overnight boat tour of islands at Ao Phang-Nga National Park (between Phuket and Krabi), and went diving (gM) and snorkelling (kN) off a Liveaboard (i.e. live aboard a boat for 3 nights / 4 days) around the Similan Islands, Ko Tachai, Ko Bon, and Richelieu Rock. I had my best snorkelling experiences during this liveaboard trip: the water was clear, the colours of the fish were so bright, the schools of fish were swarming, and I saw my first turtle. I was moved by this new world.
3. Islands of Southern Thailand (Ko Bulon Leh, Ko Lipe, Ko Phi-Phi Don, Ko Pha-Ngan, Rai Leh beach on the mainland). - The islands had different strengths. On Ko Bulon Leh, I liked the restfulness and our best basic accommodation (cold water shower, scoop toilet), and the seafood was delectable. On Ko Phi-Phi Don, I liked the busy-ness, people, and action. On Ko Pha-Ngan, the full moon party scene from buildup to the night itself to the day after was one to experience. All the beaches and water were choice.
4. Northern Thailand (Ayuthaya, Chiang Mai, Nan area, Sukhothai, Nam Nao National Park, Phu Kradung National Park, Nong Khai). - Chiang Mai offerred us scrumptious food, and a Thai massage. The wats at Ayuthaya Historical Park and Sukhothai Historical Park were striking. In the Nan area specifically in Ban Toei, we learned from the Mayor of the 13 tribes in the area that Royal Decrees made by the King of Thailand have the irrevocable power of creating National Parks around people who already live in the area, despite it being illegal for people to live in National Parks. Nam Nao National Park presented easy and beautiful treks, and in contrast Phu Kradung National Park offerred a challenging 45.2km trek over 19.25hr in 3 days (note that statistics become important to me when physical adversity is involved). Doi Inthanon National Park by Chiang Mai was in part great fun because our Honda Dream 100cc motorcycle struggled both up and down the long and steep hill. Our first view of the Mekong at Chiang Khan set us up for tracking the Mekong from Chiang Khan to Don Det in Laos.
5. North-Eastern Thailand (Phanom Rung, Phimai). - The ruins at both Phanom Rung Historical Park and Prasat Hin Phimai National Historical Park near Nakhon Ratchasima were a superior introduction to Angkor-period Khmer wats which we would later see at Cambodia's Angkor.
Overall. - Because we repeatedly returned to Thailand, Thailand became a constant point of reference for:money - "How much is that in baht?" would assign meaningful worth to items and services in other countries for 7 months;
familiarity - Because portraits of the King of Thailand were everywhere, he felt like my buddy and I missed not seeing him in Laos and Cambodia;
food - Because the food in Thailand was top-rate and it was the dominant food in the region, it became a high bar to surpass. Furthermore in other countries, I can now taste how different Thai food is there in comparison to what we ate in Thailand. It is a powerful feeling to now be more knowingly critical;
transportation - I would compare all modes of transport and quality of roads in South-East Asia to those in Thailand. Thailand kept looking better and better! My favourite mode of transport was the 2nd class fan sleeper from Bangkok to Surat Thani, and from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.
I experienced firsthand time and again that all is relative. After Myanmar and confirmed by Laos and Cambodia, I learned that it had been a luxury to be concerned about eating a balanced diet in places such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. In Myanmar, we were happy if everything that was supposed to stay inside actually did! Since Myanmar, I put away all reservations that I previously had in Bangkok (which, like Singapore, is one of the safest places in South-East Asia) - I ate salads, non-peel fruits, meats, juices, etc. It felt wonderful. From December to June, Bangkok in ways almost felt like Canada or Austria. We did not take Bangkok's more developed infrastructure for granted, examples of such being movies in the theatre, the infrastructure of public transportation despite it being a constant hardship to puzzle out bus routes (too many times, I felt like we were trapped in a Mr. Bean show), amenities like grocery stores and shopping malls, and access to the news (newspapers, Internet). Japan was the only time that we returned to Bangkok after visiting a first world country: at this time, Bangkok felt more third world.
In Canada, we will experience culture shock when we walk down the street or in a mall. It will feel like there is nobody around. The population density in general is so much higher wherever we were in South-East Asia, that to walk down the street or in a mall without having someone ½ a footstep behind or in front of you, without having someone bump into you, without having to continually negotiate around people everywhere at all times, etc., will feel really weird. The world can feel very crowded here. You have to consciously think a lot while walking because there are many obstacles - lots of people, and in most places, physically sticking up/down/out or dripping things on the street. It truly is physically dangerous to walk and cross streets if you are daydreaming. In turn, in Canada I will miss some of the Thai-ness that became my norm: the Thai national anthem, the offerings in unexpected places (offerings of coins, small toys, small candies, and paper origami were placed in front or on top of all display cases with preserved dead babies or conjoined twin babies at the Siriraj museums in Bangkok), the scrumptious noodles, and of course, my buddy the King.