The Pros + Cons of Being Sober in Thailand

I’m leaving Thailand. I can’t quite believe it, to be honest. I kind of hadn’t thought that this day would come, and you’d be surprised how comfortable you get in a place after seven-and-a-half weeks. On to Vietnam for probably the same amount of time. It’s not about the number of places you visit; it’s about the quality of your experience. I couldn’t give a shite about stamps on my passport or photos at monuments. I couldn’t give a shite about Instagoodness, about writing a typical travel blog or hitting all the hot spots. I care about people, and about feeling good.

But I had better go now because I could stay forever. 

My experience is difficult to sum up, but with the intention of maybe being useful instead of loquacious, here are some things I’ve noticed traveling trough Thailand as a sober person. 

Pros:

1. There are plenty of things to do that don’t revolve around drinking.

I can only speak for the north, because I spent two months up there (I am a bad ‘traveler’), but it’s chock-a-block with temples, overrun with waterfalls, littered with jungles and hot springs, and infested with markets selling colorful anything and everything. The food is also amazing, from the little lady on the side of the street with her cart to the high-end restaurants in the cities (so I’ve heard – obviously I’m a cheap-ass and have exclusively eaten in street-side shit-holes). It’s a great place to exhaust yourself during the day, stuff yourself for peanuts, and then get an early night. Or, if you’re a night owl, head to a night market and be sensually bombarded until you’re exhausted proper. There’s also Thai massage everywhere around the clock.  Plus, there’s karaoke, there are Muy Thai shows and Ping-Pong shows (if you’re curious or a creep), and, actually, really good music, depending on where you go (Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Pai I can attest had buzzing music scenes). As such, you’ll never be without something to stimulate you.

2. There are English speaking AA meetings.

I know they were in Bangkok, I know they were in Chiang Mai, and I know they were other places that I didn’t visit. There were some in Chiang Rai that New Life ran trips to a few times a week. Of course, there are online meetings, but if you want to sit in a circle with some interesting folks from all over the globe, you won’t have much trouble doing so. You can even plan your trip around it.

3. Thailand attracts “spiritual seekers”.

So, you’ll find plenty of people who either are in recovery or sober by choice – either way, you’ll find plenty of people walking a similar path. I was sustained by some of the most stimulating conversations with people about consciousness and spirituality, so much so that I honestly didn’t feel like I was missing my AA community.

4. There’s a huge healthy-/conscious living community.

A natural result of #3. In certain places, this is definitely true. In others, maybe not so much. But if that’s what you’re craving, Chiang Mai and Pai up north are full of yoga studios, meditation centers, ecstatic dance, alternative healing therapies, and general communities of people who create amazing spaces and events. There’s also the north end of Koh Phangan, famed for its wild ‘full moon parties’ on the south side of the island, but also playing host to all the things you’d expect from reformed, “awakened” nutters.

5. If shit gets overwhelming, you can always just check into a monastery.

There are monasteries everywhere, many of which allow you to just show up – at most you should email beforehand. Many of them will offer ten-day Vipassana retreats; some will just allow you to show up and partake as much as you like. I researched dozens and dozens, so can speak with some authority, but can truly only comment on the one that I went to for ten days (Wat Pa Tham Wua between Pai and Mae Hong Son); it’s quite lax, but there’s a schedule for you to adhere to, so you can go there and genuinely not think, not talk (if you like), and not be distracted by life’s usual stimulations.

6. You save money.

Some days I felt like I splurged because I spend an extra 20-30 baht on dinner. Then I thought about how much money my friends must spend on a night out, which happens every night in Thailand. Hundreds of baht, surely. I mean, alcohol is so cheap, but I was no cheap drunk, nor are any of the people I’ve been hanging out with. When I do the math, I think this trip would be twice or almost three times more expensive if I were drinking. Which means that one could theoretically travel for twice (or three times!) as long.

Cons:

1. There are so many things that DO revolve around drinking.

Whether you’re doing the traditional “backpacker” trip (like I thought I was before I realized I don’t like moving from place to place every five minutes like I’m skimming through a catalogue of holiday destinations in a travel agency), or something a little shorter/fancier, you’ll be hard-pressed to escape the presence of alcohol, in abundance, in appealing colours, for even more appealing prices.

Thailand, as a whole country, is an incredibly popular tourist destination, and as such, is pretty Westernized. And, the truth is, when Westerners ‘holiday’, they like to drink. So the booze is everywhere, and it’s cheap. If you’re backpacking, you’re also going to be thrown forcibly into the most social environments of your life – hostels – where no one knows anyone and everyone wants to make friends. Alcohol, naturally, aids and abets that. There are always hotels and guest houses where you can avoid that intensity.

If you’re still keen on doing the cheap and cheerful hostel thing, but this doesn’t sound like something you’d be able to handle sober, perhaps stay clear of any hostel that has “Party” or “Backpackers” in the title, and do yourself a favor – book ahead on a website like booking.com or hostelword.com, and read the reviews so you know which one to choose. There are plenty that cater to people who aren’t kids on gap years and looking to get fucked up. 

2. If AA is your thing, there aren’t going to be as many meetings as you’d like.

Not if you come from a place like I do (AA-wise) – Chicago has 6000 meetings a week (6000! A week!) to spoil yourself with. If that’s something you’re used to, then it might be a bit of a shock seeing that there’s only one a day even in the bigger cities. But, here’s how I look at it – some weeks in Chicago I was lucky to make even one meeting. And you can only BE at one meeting at a time. So the whole ‘6,000 a week’ thing was a lost cause on me – far more impressive-sounding than it was literally useful. If AA is something that you need, you can easily plan your trip around the larger cities, and meet some interesting AAers from all over the globe.

3. Thailand attracts “spiritual seekers”.

Please note the inverted commas here. There are going to be plenty of people who wanna talk all existential and pretty-like; plenty of guys and girls with tattoos and dreadlocks and anklets and dirty-soled feet who’ll be waxing romantic about their crystal collection or their astral projections or their yoga teacher who’s “like, totally enlightened”*. But as the night progresses and they proceed to smoke themselves into a waking coma, their insight on ‘consciousness’ might start to seem questionable.

You’ll also meet these types in busy backpacker haunts trying to “push the limits of their consciousness” via shake after mushroom shake, until they can barely push their tongue between their teeth to formulate comprehendible sentences. I’d almost make excuses for the ‘plant-based medicines’, as they affectionately call them, but you’ll often find that these types passed out in gutters at the end of the night, asking yourself, “Hey, wasn’t that the guy who was harping on about his hardcore Vipassana practice earlier?”

I’m genuinely not judging – I do so many unconscious things throughout the course of twenty-four hours, it’s borderline shameful. I’m just trying to illustrate that one mustn’t take every utterance as gospel. It can be overwhelming (in a good way) when you arrive and it seems that everyone is on the same wholesome, conscious-living path that you’re trying to be on. It’s important to be able to decipher good intentions, poorly met from a lack of intentions masked with hot air. Being able to make this judgement call and drawing authentic people in my immediate circle has been my absolute saving grace.

* Sounds judgmental, but it’s only in jest – I’m as much one of them as I am drawn to them.

4. Thai people like to drink.

Perhaps not as much as the Irish or English or the mad Aussies, but it does appear to be a part of life here as much as anywhere else. I was in a hot springs near Pai (the ‘secret hot springs’ that are frequented by mostly locals from surrounding villages and the odd tipped-off tourist), smiling and relishing the meeting of the warm water and sun, when a man’s head surfaced like a submarine right next to me, glassy-eyed and cheekily brandishing a filthy-looking, unlabeled bottle of clear liquid. “Ahahahahaha” is all he said, pouring a measure of it into the gold cap in his other hand and pushing it towards my mouth. Someone else in my party took a swig and confirmed (being Irish and having naturally tried Poitin back home) that it was some sort of moonshine. I looked around me and realized that a vast majority of the Thais in the vicinity were, now that I noticed, a little bit steamed. It was about 1pm. These were my kinda drunks, once upon a time. I’d been thinking that it was only the carefree tourists who hit the colorful fruit cocktails by the pool at the hostel bar, but since that moment I noticed that the laid-back, social Thai culture is quite the breeding ground for day-drinking, boozy evenings with family and friends, and everything in between.

5. Traveling, you’re away from home.

Okay admittedly this isn’t specific to Thailand, but it was the first country I hit on my Asian adventure, so I’m going to make a generic point now. I also realize that it seems like a trite and obvious statement – of course you’re away from home when you travel. But what does that mean to a person in recovery?

It can mean that you’re away from your routine, your community of other sober people (if you’re in a program like AA), and your comforts that allow life to run smoothly in the background without you noticing. It can mean that you’re faced with a whole slew of problems that don’t exist when you’re wherever home is (how do I feed myself? Where do I do my laundry? How do I get across town? What if I get Dengue?), and as such life can feel like someone has turned up the sound and the colour – everything is raw and more visceral, which can be either a delight and an opportunity, or else grossly overwhelming.

In the course of my time in Thailand, it was both. But I believe that it does come down to choice and attitude, so I chose to have an attitude of acceptance towards it all – even the overwhelming stuff. Once I began to accept life exactly as it was, I felt at home exactly where I was. When I cannot accept life, I (unsurprisingly) feel displaced and ungrounded. And that puts me at risk of relapse. 

Then again, so do plenty of things back home. So, if you’re feeling the inclination to go, just go. Thailand is a very special place, where you can truly experience the joys of living that you got sober for in the first place.

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