Thailand’s Neighbors: A Cultural Deep Dive

“Four very different nations border Thailand:  Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Cambodia. Without having to journey very far, you can experience moderate Islam, dictatorial police state communism, socialist republican-style communism, and burgeoning inept parliamentary-flavored democracy — and eat well, too! ”

Who said Southeast Asia was boring?  You can do drugs at a Full Moon Party at a beach in Thailand — just never admit that you did — and yet less than 500 kilometers away, face the death penalty for being in possession.  Thailand and its neighbors don’t ‘differ’ like the US and Canada do.  Or like Australia and New Zealand.  These neighbors are almost schizophrenically different from Thailand.

A lot of you are just trying to check countries off a list, to say you’ve been there, even if you just set foot there for an hour, in the far-reaching hopes that this will earn you respect and the kind of street cred that may land you a high-paying job.  Hey, it worked for rap artists.

Thailand is the focus of this section of Doug’s Republic.  As such we will focus on the four neighbors in their role as neighbors and how they compare to Thailand.  Remember the 1990’s show Home Improvement about Tim “the Toolman” Taylor, starring Tim Allen?  This show was about him, his life, and his family.  It didn’t go into great depth about his neighbor Wilson.


Multicultural is not the first word you’d use to describe Thailand.  Thailand has one official language and one official religion.  Malaysia has one official language, too, Bahasa Malaysia, but only 50% of the population is Malay and speaks the language amongst each other at home.

A quarter of the people are Chinese are seven percent are Indian.  It’s religions, foods, smells, and sounds galore.  Just witness Doug’s trip to Melaka, a top-drawer Malaysian tourist destination, and your jaw will drop at how astoundingly different Malaysia is from Thailand and even within its various sub-communities.

What’s a most pleasant surprise arriving in Malaysia is the simply amazing architecture in all the key cities.  Melaka, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang boast a fascinating array of British, Dutch, Chinese, Indian, and what I call “Neo-Islamic” buildings.  Even modern buildings incorporate this unique design.

In Thailand, the architecture is functional, if nothing more.  You see skyscrapers but they’re as generic as skyscrapers you’d see in any other country.  The appealing architecture takes a back seat in Malaysian Borneo, although the capitals of the Borneo states of Sarawak (Kuching) and Saba (Kota Kinabalu) boast some attractive buildings.

The food’s phenomenal, varied, and in some ways, a better deal than Thailand.  Back in Thailand, Thai food is cheap, anything else is a premium.  In Malaysia, Malay, Indian, and Chinese foods are all considered local and available at steal-of-a-deal prices.

Alcohol is where you get taken for a ride.  Allah doesn’t smile at alcohol consumption, so the Malaysian authorities, in the name of Mohammed and all things Islam, have got to tax you.  Expect to pay more than double compared to Thailand for the bottle of Tiger Beer here you buy.

Trains or planes are your cheapest and easiest way in.


You’ll see more similarities between Cambodia and Thailand than you will between Malaysia and Thailand.   India had a great influence on Cambodia and these influences were then passed on to Thailand.

Theravada Buddhism has had a great impact on them both.  Some words in Thai are borrowed from old Khmer.  Today, the scripts bear no resemblance.  While not easy to learn, it’s easier to learn than Thai in that it has no tones.

The food shares similarities with Thai, but the accents are different.   For example, Khmer and Thai cuisine both have papaya salads and red/green curries.  However, you’ll notice the difference in the Khmer versions immediately.  They’re not as spicy and use slightly different ingredients.

I had a superb Khmer papaya salad outside Battambang — it had basil leaves added.  Khmer cuisine has also been influenced by large neighboring Vietnam.  Vietnam and Cambodia were both pushed around by France for decades, and baguettes are still readily available.

Cambodia in recent times has been through hell and back.   Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge, became the country’s largest sponsor — of executions!  20-30% of the population were handed a one-way ticket to the morgue.  It’s only been in the last 20 years the country has started picking up the pieces.

I had originally considered going to Cambodia back in 1994, the year I first visited Thailand.  Cambodia had just opened to tourism.  Back then, the only way in was a relatively expensive flight.  As I recall, a Frenchman I met booked such a flight that took him into and out of Siem Reap to see the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Years later, Siem Riep continues to be the most popular point of entry and departure for foreigners. Indeed, the majority of foreigners only come to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and then get out of Cambodia pronto.

The country is still evolving and remains an anything-goes Wild West sort of place, particularly Phnom Penh. Traffic is supposed to run on the right side, but who’s checking?

A popular travel book written in the late 1990s documents the normalcy of insanity of life in Phnom Penh. Teachers slot in a quick $2 screw at a local brothel as if it were coffee before they begin the day’s teaching gigs.

Cambodia officially has cleaned up much of its act since then. In reality, it’s still all out there. Rock pervert Gary Glitter made Cambodia his underaged pervert paradise until his deportation in 2002.   Had he not been famous and been more discreet with his pre-teen pickups,  Cambodia would not have been in a rush to kick him out.

Some people say Cambodia today is like Thailand 30-40 years ago.  Looking back over an old Bangkok entertainment magazine from 1967, one can see that Thailand’s capital was quite cosmopolitan in a way that Cambodia’s capital certainly is striving to be today.   Cambodia’s GDP per capita today may be on a level Thailand’s was several decades ago.

But in countries like these, where wealth is not evenly distributed, GDP per capita is a misleading indicator. Where the parallels do not hold is in economic development. Thailand in the 1960s served as an R & R center for American soldiers passing through as they did duty in Vietnam. It also functioned as a large anchoring economy in a region wracked by war.

Cambodia does not serve this purpose and nor is it as cheap as Thailand today, let alone 30-40 years back. Accommodation in Phnom Penh will cost at least as much and probably more than equivalent accommodation in Bangkok.

The manufacturing base is small, too, so many items are imported — from Thailand and elsewhere. Cambodia remains a dollar-based economy and prices reflect a lack of faith in the local authorities. ATMs dispense crisp U.S. dollar notes.


Laos is the most similar to Thailand.  15 to 20 million Thais living in the Northeastern region of Isaan speak what is essentially the same language as that spoken in Laos. However, in Isaan, that script is written with the Thai alphabet; in Laos, with the Lao script. The scripts aren’t all that different.

In some cases, words are written identically and pronounced almost the same. Perhaps a good analogy is Spanish and Italian. Words between those two languages can be similar or identical, too, and there are some differences in the alphabet.

Foods overlap, too.   Laos like to boast that the famous dish lab originated in their kitchens. Did it? Who knows? Whoever first came up with the dish did so before Laos and Thailand were known as the separate countries they are today.

Culturally, Laos and Northeastern Thailand could be one nation. There are other food similarities, in salads and curries, but the Lao versions are less spicy. Lao cuisine has also been influenced by the French.

Laos is extremely undeveloped. Its capital, Vientiane, is a tiny cow town, hardly what one thinks of us as a Southeast Asian capital. That said, it’s got wonderful cafes and restaurants and is easily the most laid-back capital in Southeast Asia.

Luang Prabang is Laos’ other showpiece and has undergone rapid development and price hikes since 2005 when I last visited. In between is Vang Vieng, a place where backpackers predominantly in their mid-twenties come to go inter tubing and kayaking.

Many visitors don’t even hit these three key areas. The majority may shoot across the border from Thailand to secure a new visa and the more affluent book flights directly to Luang Prabang.

North of Luang Prabang is plenty of undeveloped villages. I spent a few nights up there and did an overnight trek. It was an experience to be sure, but I can readily see how most visitors wouldn’t be interested in ‘roughing it.’

Laos has a small population for a Southeast Asian nation and, to date, wide areas of unspoiled and undeveloped nature. And though small, transport isn’t very good, and it will take you longer to reach an area than you’d think based on the kilometers alone.

Overland from Thailand is how most visitors end up here.

Myanmar (Burma)

What’s life like in a police state? Go to Burma and find out!

Officially, I’ve been to Burma a lot. Nearly every time I’ve done a visa run, I travel to Ranong and take a boat across to Victoria Point, which is officially in Burma. Another time I motorbiked a few hundred kilometers from Kanchanaburi and visited the Burmese border town.

Yes, I was physically in Burma for these trips, but only for hours; and as these were border towns, the locals were conditioned to seeing transient traffic. Goods were priced in Thai baht, and I was not permitted to journey beyond a tiny fraction of the city limits.

But I have been to Burma. I spent 3 weeks there in December 1994 on my way to Bangladesh, and it made an impression.   Back then, it was an old-school police state. The corrupt government completely controlled the media, access to goods in and out of the country, and travel.

Upon arrival, one had to swap USD 200 into the equivalent of 200 FEC. These were foreign exchange certificates, Mickey Mouse money that said “This is worth $5.” It was a system modeled directly on the Chinese one of the 1980s.

I happened to avoid this restriction upon arrival at the airport by saying I was there for a meditation course and skirting past a crowd who were forced to make the exchange. One could only pay for hotels and (officially) train tickets with these FECs.

Being forced to change $200 wasn’t a bad thing. I eventually wound up changing around this much money into FECs through a local bank, and the FECs could, in turn, be swapped on the black market for the local currency, the kyat, at fifteen times the official exchange rate.

You could not travel where you wanted when you wanted. Travel was restricted to four areas: Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay, and the capital of Rangoon. I tried to venture outside this prescribed area through a combination of trains and buses from obscure towns outside Mandalay, with the intent of traveling to Burma’s far northern town of Myitkyina.

Police accosted me when I went to the train station to purchase a ticket. They were quite friendly about it all. I was escorted back to a hotel and told to return to Mandalay the next day. The hotel proprietor was also very cordial but never let me out of his sight until I was on the bus back to Mandalay.

Back then Burma was not well-touristed. In 1994, one was permitted to stay up to a month. Only a few years earlier, the maximum permitted stay was a week. This was Burma’s bid to attract more tourists. Backpackers trickled in. Affluent tourists, even though they could afford the relatively expensive accommodation prices, couldn’t be troubled with having to get their visas in advance. And the press wasn’t very nice in their writeups.

In ’94, Burma was anticipating 1m tourists by the year 2000 and had a tourist slogan promotion already in place. It was laughable then. The country couldn’t handle 1m tourists with the tight restrictions the government had in place. By the year 2000, only 208,000 had visited, mostly from Asia. This only crept up to 248,000 by 2008.

In mid-2010, the Burmese government announced a visa-on-arrival scheme. By September, the system had been pulled. The government fluctuates between crackdowns and reform. In November 2010, they finally freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 1989. In 1994, I never would’ve thought the government would have held on this long.

A lesson to would-be dictators: as long as your country contains no natural resources the world depends on and you keep your dictatorial activities to yourself, you can stay in power forever!

Burma offers Asian landscapes that seem like they were drawn out of the collective imagination of what Asia is supposed to look like. The Schwedagon Pagoda, the temples of Bagan, the royal capital of Mandalay — in my memories, they seem like artificially created Hollywood backdrops meant to convey Asia to those who’ve never been here.

It may have all changed since ’94, but I doubt it. This place hasn’t industrialized or capitalized on anything amazing since then. Flying into Mandalay from Thailand is the usual way to come in, but it’s now become possible to travel overland via selected routes and stay several nights with a visitor permit.

Final Words

Thailand is a gem in Southeast Asia, serving as the gateway to its enigmatic neighbors. Whether you’re stepping into the multicultural blend of Malaysia, exploring the tragic yet resilient history of Cambodia, immersing yourself in the laid-back ambiance of Laos, or unraveling the complex layers of Myanmar, each journey promises a unique experience.

These aren’t mere countries to tick off a list; they are worlds within themselves, with stories waiting to be heard.