As you might imagine, I wouldn’t be bringing it up, if Thailand didn’t lack something in this department. Cleanliness is a big issue in Thailand and it has an impact on the perceived status of footwear and feet, the ground in general, and of course the comfort of the Westerner who visits there.
Let’s start with the ground. It’s dirty. And I’m not making just a sort of facile joke. The pavement in the cities is unsanitary with sewage. The ground in country villages might have pig or ox manure on it, but mostly it’s just dirty and unpaved. You would no more sit on the ground in Thailand than you would sit down in the middle of a pig pen on a farm in the States. People look at you as though you had willingly picked up dogshit with your bare hands. In lieu of sitting on the ground, the Thai people have developed a balanced, resting squat that I personally cannot duplicate, but I’ve been told is genuinely as comfortable as sitting if you can get the knack.
If the ground is dirty, so by extension are your shoes. In the villages, you take your shoes off before you climb a ladder to enter a hut. Again, think of farming and working in the earth. Remember people work in the fields all day and it seems automatic and sensible to remove your shoes before you enter a house. It’s not something to worry about. It’s something you will automatically and obviously do.
So, if the ground is dirty and your shoes are dirty, a shoe which covers the foot more completely is a higher status shoe since your feet stay cleaner. Everywhere in Thailand thongs are common. The Thai do everything from heavy construction with power tools to street sweeping in thongs, but these are the lower classes and there are no cheaper shoes to be had. One of the reasons foreigners are considered wealthy (and we are wealthy compared to these people, although I often think they live better) is the quality of our shoes. Of course the other reason is the way we throw money around on things they don’t value. But I digress.
So that’s street dirt. What about bathing and toilets? Erg. Bathing and toilets. Street dirt is pretty easy to understand and you won’t behave in a shocking manner in Thailand with regard to it. You will be just as disgusted (at least in the city) by the prospect of sitting on the ground as any Thai. Your feet will automatically be the dirtiest part of your body in your mind — because they ARE. Nothing will reinforce this in your brain faster than a trip to a Thai toilet. In nicer hotels and restaurants, Western style toilets are available. These toilets will not surprise you. You will take them for granted. Don’t.
One baby step away from central high-end tourist centers, the Western toilets vanish. What replaces them you ask? A hole in the ground with ceramic foot pads on either side. For a man this is ok most of the time, but women wearing pants will learn the hard way that the Thai resting squat is something they HAVE to master. In pants. Or piss all over your pants. Or hold yourself up in an awkward way using the disgusting walls. Take your pick. Now, try that trick on a swaying train car. Now add travelers’ trots. MMmmm… Thailand.
Hope you brought your own toilet paper.
Showers are not bad, though. I think I mentioned that on the trek in the villages, washing was done with a clean trashcan full of cold water and a dipper. You have to get used to the cold and you REALLY don’t want to touch the wet ground in the bathing hut since it’s also the toilet, but if you can stand the cold, cleanliness is possible. In the city, Reed and I never failed to have a shower when we wanted it, even in our cheap 12 dollar a night hotel.
This is probably worth a slight digression onto the topic of hotels. Hotels are available at Western major metropolitan city prices (e.g. 100 – 300 bucks a night) very easily. These hotels will be world class. For 300 a night you can stay at the Oriental Hotel, which Conde Naste rates as one of the top 5 hotels in the world every year. You won’t get a suite, but you will get a room. For most travelers, though, this is a stupid way to spend your money. A fairly nice hotel with AC, a mini bar, reasonable hot water, comfortable beds and a pool we didn’t use is available for about 40 bucks a night with breakfast included. Your average Americano could stay there and while it’s not the Holiday Inn, you really have nothing to complain about.
Reed and I, however, still thought we could do better. Reading the Lonely Planet Thailand book, we discovered that the backpacker hotels, which do not take reservations, offer AC and an in-room bathroom for 10-15 bucks a night. The trick is all in getting a room. So when Reed and I got back to Bangkok, we paid for the nicer hotel one night and then got up early the next morning to see what we could scrounge. Sure enough, just down the street from the Vieng Tai (our nice hotel) we found the Orchid House with a charming veranda restaurant and rooms to let up above. The stairs are narrow. There is no elevator. You lock your room with a keyed padlock and if you’re smart you lash your backpack to the bed when you leave. The AC is a wall unit that should only be on when you’re there, and the hot water is sporadic. But let’s face it, you only want to sleep there and it’s TWELVE DOLLARS A NIGHT. No bugs were in evidence. We were happy. And that’s the story on logistics and sanitation.