We like to think of ourselves as travelers, and not as tourists. We humor ourselves, much like little boys stuck in their pilot/pirate/policeman phase. We aren’t to be blamed, mind: the traveler is obviously cooler.
The tourist traps herself in her conveniences. She has flights to fly, sights to see, luggage to lug, and hotels to hote. The traveler revels in the very opposite. She packs two pieces of underwear and a toothbrush, and hopes to figure out the rest along the way. The traveler loses the way, drinks the water, and sees the things that Lonely Planet does not show. Like a gambler or a lover, she receives more because she gives more.
When the Chakrayan Chroniclers first set out, we wanted, in this way, to be vulnerable. We were all ready to ride the rough road and eat the funky food. We were four students (inclusive of beautiful white woman), hoping to ride our bicycles for thousands of kilometers. Of course things would go wrong! Our bikes would become seea (Thai for ‘broken or spoiled’), our stomachs would become seea, and we would definitely lohng the thaang (lose the way). We would be clueless, helpless, and dependent, with a language barrier to boot.
I couldn’t wait.
But then the rough road and the funky food gave us a miss.
It turns out vulnerability is something you must seek out. It does not just come when called.
Upsettingly enough, none of the bikers have fallen ill yet. It turns out the roadside stalls have been serving us factory-packaged ice and boiled water the whole time. When we lohng the thaang and ask for directions, the people are too polite to tell us that we are lost. They point encouragingly in the direction that we are headed, and assure us, with an oddly formed thumbs-up, that we’re on the right track. When we ask directions for Highway 408 from Songkhla to Nakhon Si Thammarat, they politely direct us to the more comfortable ferry that connects the same two cities.
Without even realizing it, we are being turned into tourists. We often find ourselves at 7-Elevens, museums, bubble tea stores, and once even at KFC. I realize only now how badly we must stand out, we with our spandex and our sunglasses and our fanny packs. We want to be lovers and gamblers, but I sometimes wonder if our roses are too garish and our banknotes too big.