Our founder and travel nut James Woolley shares his experiences of his recent trip to Thailand (where he got engaged to his girlfriend) and how they relate to his work in the Cape Town travel sector.
I have recently returned from Thailand – my fourth trip to the land of smiles. This time was different however, in that I travelled with my significant other, and got engaged! While travelling the country, I was constantly drawing parallels to Cape Town, and how we can learn and benefit from this somewhat more mature travel destination.
The most notable experiences relate to transport, food and accommodation, but I was constantly admiring the attitude of the Thai people too. It was truly inspiring that these humble people have so much respect for their tourism industry, and how they realise that they have a profound culture to uphold, while still being incredibly welcoming to all of the invading “Farrangs” (foreigners) with their quirks and differences. It seems that the respect they have is certainly universal. Aside from the cultural aspect, I feel like they realise that tourism is an essential part of their economy, helping to create jobs for many of their people. I would love to see the same attitude coming from local South African people, across the board.
We used all of the different methods of public transport in Thailand, from aeroplanes to trains, speed boats, ferries, scooters, taxis and “Tuk Tuks.” Public transport is just so readily available, from the motorbike taxi that arrived with a smile when we were lost in Koh Phangan in the early hours, to the Sky Train in Bangkok, which is state-of-the-art, clean, comfortable and cheap.
I think I saw more scooters in one night in Phuket than I have seen in my whole life. They were lined up as far as the eye can see. Now I know that the scooters can be dangerous, but at less than R50 per day, they are hard to beat – especially when travelling around the islands. It would be amazing to see an opportunity for something like this in Cape Town. South Africa has made some good headway in recent years on the transport front, but we could still learn a lot from Thailand in terms of getting from A to B simply, quickly and affordably.
To say we ate like kings in Thailand is almost an understatement. Mango and sticky rice on the road for breakfast, at less than R5 a pop, to dinner at a restaurant up on a beautiful cliff, where every single meal on the menu was R30 / $4. The Thai people seem to take a special pride in their food, which is what makes it really good, no matter where you eat it. This passion has certainly put Thai food on the map internationally; however it is the simplicity that makes it so inspiring. Why shouldn’t they charge R5 for some rice, coconut milk and a few pieces of mango? I’m sure there are places in South Africa where you can pick up high quality food, at decent prices. But again, we have a way to go in terms of confidently creating our own unique flavours, tastes and recipes, which can put us on the map internationally.
*As a side note, not all of the food was cheap. We ate at a restaurant in Koh Samui where the cheapest bottle of South African wine was R600. This brought me back to earth, and reminded me that we do have it pretty good over here!
Entertainment & Facilities
I love the fact that in Thailand, they give the tourists what they want. There are obviously some controversial elements, such as the strip clubs, brothels and other unsavoury activities, but in general, everything that is offered is all in the name of good fun. I noticed this specifically in Koh Samui, where you can take a seat on a bean bag on the beach, have a massage, buy a cocktail, or a barbecued sweet corn on a stick, and just watch the world go by, in peace.
In Cape Town, there is so much red tape when it comes to buying or selling anything on the beach, and this seems a little counterproductive. Aside from being able to buy a variety of food and drink on the beach, you can also buy a variety of arts and crafts, hire a jet ski, play soccer or volleyball, have your picture taken with a monkey, or have your fortune told. This relatively relaxed attitude keeps tourists coming back for more, and creates employment for a number of informal traders.
We stayed at some great places in Thailand, and everything ran really smoothly. Most of the places we stayed were hotel style accommodation, which is the most prevalent and affordable option there. I suppose the biggest difference between our local establishments and the places we stayed at in Thailand came down to price, but we were also quite inspired by how welcoming and hospitable everybody was.
With accommodation being my core business, im almost ashamed to say that accommodation in Thailand is less than a third of the price of Cape Town. As a relatively new global destination, Cape Town is still finding its feet in terms of its accommodation infrastructure and pricing. Whereas we were once seen as a cheap destination, on the international stage that perception is fast changing, and I think that many of us in the industry are realising that we need to keep things competitive. Essentially, this is always going to be dictated by the simple laws of supply and demand, but I would still like for all of us in the industry to keep on refining our pricing, in order to cement our position as a desirable international destination. Again, it’s all about giving our visitors what they want, at prices they can afford, so that our tourism industry can continue to grow and thrive.
Fortunately, I believe that Cape Town’s self catering industry is a lot more developed than it is in Thailand. I also believe that self catering is a viable alternative to hotels – not only from a point of space, privacy and price, but also from the individual personality that you find from each unique establishment versus the generic nature of your standard hotel.
On a final note, I will say that although we had an amazing trip, it was good to come back home. One of the best things about living in Cape Town, is that no matter where in the world you visit, coming back to our beautiful Table Mountain, is always the cherry on top.