On a small beach in southern Thailand eleven years ago I heard the unmistakable sound of Mandarin Chinese coming from the bungalow next to mine. Back then, that was a rare occurrence.
My curiosity was piqued enough to knock on their door, practice my Chinese and find out what had brought them there. Even in Thailand's major tourist destinations I had never come across independent Chinese travelers.
Fast forward more than a decade to a restaurant on the main drag in Chiang Mai where I met two young Chinese tourists — Xiao Hua from Lijiang and Fay from Xiamen. I watched as their waiter first brought them two smoothies, then a salad, then two large steaks with eggs, and then a whole steamed fish. It was enough to feed at least four.
"We have no idea what we are ordering," Xiao Hua told me as the waiter brought out two more dishes and a big bowl of rice. He had to place the last two on stools as there was no space left on the table.
"I have an app on my phone that lets me take a photo of the menu and then it gets translated. But I have no way of really knowing what I ordered. We just kind of point to things and hope for the best," she told me. It was the girls' second trip to Thailand this year and only their second trip ever abroad.
Since China began opening up more than three decades ago, Chinese traveling outside of package tours have been a rarity. Most people from the mainland opted for group tours with set schedules for travel, dining and shopping, thus removing any uncertainties and language obstacles.
Today though, far more Chinese have passports, money to spend, and perhaps most importantly, a genuine thirst for adventure. In 2012 you can't go anywhere in Asia without bumping into independent Chinese travelers.
Chiang Mai, called Qingmai (清迈) in Chinese, is less than a two-hour flight from Kunming. Until recently even the occasional Chinese tourist group was uncommon, but this year has been different.
"They've been coming in droves," one local café owner told me. "We've seen more Chinese tourists in Chiang Mai so far this year than we have over the past ten years combined."
Last year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand estimated that more than 1.5 million Chinese per year would visit the country by 2014. So far this year Chinese tourists have already surpassed that number and will easily surpass two million by year's end, making them the top foreign arrivals in the country.
For many in Thailand, Chinese tourism can be a double-edged sword. Some fear an influx of Chinese migrants to the country and worry that they will buy up properties and take jobs away from Thais. But business owners in Chiang Mai I talked with couldn't be happier with the trend.
"Our economy has been bad for several years now," one local antique vendor told me. "Europeans and North Americans aren't traveling as much as they used to. We're lucky the Chinese have been bringing so much money. They're great customers."
Many Chinese tourists looking forward to a tropical vacation are avoiding traditional destinations like Hainan's Sanya (三亚). They complain that domestic prices are too high and instead look to international travel for other options.
For some Chinese, venturing to places like Chiang Mai can be challenging, especially for those who don't speak English. There are almost no travel agencies in town with information in Chinese.
Even the five-star Mandarin Oriental Luxury Hotel only has one staff member who can speak the language. "I've been overwhelmed this year," Mrs. Tian, a former Kunming resident, told me. "Chinese now make up more than half of our customers and I'm the only one here to handle all of their questions."
Among those in the tourist business in Thailand, Chinese still have a reputation for being rather impatient and abrasive. But traveling has a learning curve and ten years ago American and European tourists in Asia were often described the same way.
"For now," one local tour operator told me, "we're just happy to have their money. As far as courtesy goes... it will come in time."
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