Monthly Archives: July 2014

Tourist’s Guilt / Travelling Softly

IMG_5476

‘Attention culture vultures: if you are passing through chiang mai on the weekend, the sunday night market is a spectacular experience not to be missed. Never mind the lesser Saturday market, or the reliable but unoriginal daily market, this market is the intimate local encounter that you’ve been looking for.

Every sunday night, the streets become an impressive sight adorned by lights; a sight, however, no less impressive than the stunning homogeneity of stalls, and goods and wares (one might even think that one is in bangkok or luang prabang, wow!). As you jostle through the streets, be sure not to miss the street buskers with tired old tricks, the listless exhortations of store owners staring hollowly over piles of strange trinkets, or the sequined faux feather boa-ed young girls singing and dancing for you in their clackety kitten heels. That’s not all – the main attraction is the impressive 25 meter long line of chairs and mattresses that become a makeshift massage parlour, right along the street. Ingenious! If you come at a busy time, you will be greeted with the glorious sight of lines and lines of local  women dipping their heads and kneading the feet of tired tourists. Look closer and you will no doubt find packs of chinese tourists yabbering across themselves, White patrons insisting that their Thai honeys join them for an awkward footrub, and teenagers of all ethnicities either standing aside in embarrassment, or seated and glued to their iphones, deathly afraid of the off chance of eye contact…’

IMG_5540

This is the Luang Prabang night market – very similar to the Chiang Mai market

They say that one’s internal state is often projected to make meaning when there may be none or the other. What I saw at the Chiang mai night market reflects the emotional access I had to it as a tourist: one of discomfort, embarrassment, and a tinge of guilt. These feelings stuck like a strange stomachache,  unexplained and undigested, yet too persistent to ignore. An earlier me might have had quickly dismissed these feelings as a kneejerk reaction to its ‘inauthenticity’. Granted, however, that ‘authenticity’ (as mentioned in my previous post) neither exists nor is helpful, seeing the chiang mai market as fully authentic/inauthentic helps little in accounting for these feelings and the questions that came with it. Was there another concept that i could explore to make sense of all this?

Lets leave authenticity aside for now; lets instead think about cultural transmission, assimilation and its limits. If transmission is the ongoing process where cultural influences flow in and out a country, assimilation is the absorption and imbibing of previously separate cultures and ways, to be henceforth considered part of one’s own. Cultural flows occur through time, over and within borders, and between peoples, accounting for a country’s cultural evolution.

IMG_4722

The Chiang Mai night market is cultural transmission at work. It represents a part of Thailand that had been changed by tourism and foreign influence – a Thailand that bobs and sways on the confluences of this globalised world. Cultural influences are fed to it through numerous little tributaries from all over the world in a soup of non-local influences, tastes and preferences for a ‘Thailand’ shaped by one’s own cultural stock. The result is a market that was ostensibly ‘local’, yet had a content, audience and spirit that seemed largely for tourists – buddhist kitsch instead of portraits of the king’s royal family, elephant harem pants instead of jeans and t shirts, makeshift massage parlours instead of sidewalks. Cultural transmission has produced a specific image of the night market predominantly shaped by tourism, but built and perpetuated by both sides: foreigners who consciously or unconsciously idealise it, and locals who simultaneously play the game of catch-up by reinventing it.The place seemed mass produced and reproducible on one end, tired, begrudging and forced on the other.

There was something about this that made me feel complicit in something ugly and bullying, perhaps even exploitative and corruptive. What exactly?

IMG_7193

It could be how cultural transmission happened almost exclusively in one direction. We saw this often in Southeast Asia; the rich tourist trampling all over with her gigantic cultural footsteps. In the wake of her destruction, spas, hotels, burger joints, souvenir shops and cultural shows sprout in her likeness. What is transmitted is the tourist’s own ideal of a place and of travel. This may swing from being unapologetically divorced from the bigger part of a place (a holidayer happy to never step out of her  5 star beach resort off the coast of Mexico), to self-consciously seeking the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ in everything, and everything in between. Regardless of intention, the mere presence of the tourist changes the cultural landscape of the places he goes. Big bucks and the promise of tourist revenue make short work of this, and national policy and individual choices often find themselves quickly accommodating to this new influence, sometimes with less choice than we would like to admit. The wealth disparity and vastly tipped balance of power was one; the fact that we could go traipsing around as tourists and so dramatically change a culture was another. To me, the Chiang Mai night market seemed to react to cultural transmission of tourism awkwardly. The globalisation of Thai souvenirs, the singing girls, the women with the tourists’ dirty feet – all to get by – made me feel like we have robbed a place from developing on its own terms and according to its own image. What remains is a bastardised mish-mash product of Thailand, safe and agreeable for consumption. A similar case can be made for the ethnic tourism that we’ve seen in the hills of Northern Thailand: Pay 200 baht to gape at ethnic Ya Pa long neck women in their traditional villages. Cultural currency is continually being recognised and converted into cash, but at what cost to its integrity?

DSC_0492

In response, consider the concept of travelling ‘invisibly’’. Is this possible? ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footsteps’. To proclaim such an ideal to the principle of travel is probably foolishly optimistic. It works well enough for nature reserves, but nature reserves do not react to cultural transmission from tourism as cities, villages, or ethnic hill tribes do – living, breathing, porous, and unpredictably reactive. Even the best intentioned and most careful tourist has no idea of what cultural detritus he leaves by, and less so of how they will be interpreted. While in Laos, we cycled through the most rural parts of our trip. Dirt roads, wooden shacks, communal water pumps, children screaming ‘farang!’ and a reliable audience people constantly staring at us as while we ate or rested. Anshuman reflected that we may have been the first foreigners to some of them, and how we behaved would have undeniably played a big role in forming their image and relationship to the foreigner. Such short encounters are simple but powerful; they are the building blocks from which a culture is influenced from the outside. These encounters are almost impossible to avoid in travel, and are understandably the biggest reasons why many of us travel.

DSC_0348

Showing off my new scrapes after I fell off my bike, embarrassingly for the fourth time in the trip

If travelling invisibly may not be achievable (nor very fun), is travelling as softly as possible the way to go? I’m not so sure. The blanket ideal of travelling softly assumes certain things: that there is intangible value in a country developing in a vacuum, and there is always invariably something lost, and not gained, with foreign cultural transmission. The Chiang Mai night market is a good example to use because it excludes obviously harmful foreign influences, like that of sex tourism or drug tourism. If the cost is merely cultural, is the economic trade off worth it then? More importantly, does there always have to be a cost?

My next blog post will go beyond and look at these issues from the lens of cultural assimilation, and ground the issue from the standpoint of a traveller. Just how should we travel?

IMG_7341

To see a place

Throughout our journey, I have made it a habit to find a special spot in each place we stopped. We would often have several hours to ourselves each day to wander, sleep, or do what we please. I spent this time wandering the streets until I found this aforementioned ‘special spot’. It was clear to me, each time, intuitively.
Each spot is different, but many share the same unique quality of allowing me to see while being fairly unseen.

Some examples were: a bus stop shelter, a small alleyway between two houses, an abandoned condominium building, a cement table under the awning of someone’s house, a bamboo bridge across a river…

Accessing many of these places bordered on trespassing, but I got the impression that, even if they saw me, no one particularly minded my presence. These vantage points awarded me some of my most memorable views of the entire trip. I saw children sprinting home in the rain, a man hauling water from his well to wash his clothes, people singing to themselves, ladies gossiping, monks sprinting to Evening Prayer.

IMG_7353

The thing is, I would often spend hours in these spots without seeing any of the rest of the town/ city.
I have begun to wonder, did I really see those places? How do we know once we have seen a place?

Are the Lonely Planet recommendations a must? What about the destinations offered by tour-guides? What about if I follow around a ‘local person’ going everywhere they go? Have I really seen the place? If I go to Cambodia and I miss Angkor Wat, can I say I have seen Cambodia? Who am I saying this to anyway?

Or is it even possible to ever fully see a place? Can people even say they have seen their own hometowns? Perhaps no place is static enough to be fully seen; it is all dynamic color and change…

IMG_7073

And why all this talk about ‘seeing’? To really know a place, must I feel, hear, smell, taste and touch it too?

I am unsure if I can say that I have seen, or have even begun to know any of the multitude of places we passed through and stopped in during the last 10 weeks.
What I do know, however, is that there are places that I felt immensely connected to, and others where I felt alienated, moved, inspired, intrigued, scared, disgusted, hopeful.
Perhaps these feelings came from inside me, and perhaps they came from the place. Alas, is there any view without the viewer?

Those moments, those feelings, are what those places are and will remain for me. I think that is enough… for now.

IMG_6641

A thought – what is ‘Hello?’

As we traversed 5 countries, and many various landscapes, I began to question the meaning of greeting.

In Thailand and Laos, the greeting at least holds connotations of well-being ‘dee’ meaning good. In Vietnam, however, most people shout ‘Hello’ at us.
I do not use the word ‘shout’ lightly. The first few days of being in Vietnam were actually disconcerting because of ‘Hello’. People seemed to be shouting it as a declaration, as opposed to an invitation for reciprocity.

IMG_7274

This got me thinking – what is ‘Hello’ anyway? Why do we say it? Does it hold any meaning beyond its own two syllables? What is the function of a greeting? Who is it for? Can it be one-sided?
A greeting (and all language) is said with intent – but I wonder how much of that intent can be deciphered by examining the tone with which it is delivered, versus the meaning imbedded in the word itself.
Further, what accountability is imbedded in a greeting? Are some greetings meant for those who are passing by, and others for those who are coming in?

In Swaziland, the greeting ‘Sawubona’ translates to ‘I see you’. It  demands a reciprocal acknowledgement – the affirmative ‘Yebo’. A similar exchange seemed to take place in Thailand with ‘Sawatdee kah’ and the culture of wai-ing.

I wonder what these different greetings might reveal about the responsibility of a person towards another.

We Made It!

After 68 days, 5 countries, 3,700 kilometers, and countless bowls of noodle soup, we have made it to Hanoi!

Check this space in the coming days for updates and reflections.

DSC_0380 DSC_0415 IMG_7458

Laos vs. Thailand 1-1

We all feared Laos before we got here. The elusive Laos with her endless mountains and probable lack of cell phone coverage. We had no idea what to expect, and the prospect kept us thrilled and terrified.

We have now been here for about 3 weeks, and the differences between Thailand and Laos have shown themselves – at times  more stark and at others more subtle.

On a superficial level – in Laos we ride on the right side of the road, kway teoh is replaced with pho, we eat almost exclusively sticky rice, the table is adorned with a platter of fresh greens and herbs instead of marinated chili peppers. We replace the negation ‘mai’ with ‘boh’, ‘r’ becomes ‘h’, we stop using the gendered greetings of Thailand in place of the universal “sa bai dee.”

IMG_6744

Our typical lunch of Pho, note the delicious plate of fresh greens

On a deeper level, however, the differences are, as expected, more subtle and difficult to express. I have found it particularly interesting to consider the relationship that each country has towards us -‘ farangs’, travellers, foreigners.

In Thailand we found a whole array of villages and towns, ranging from the tiny rural ‘boonies’ like Ban Mae On Ki, to hipster developing cities like Fang and Nakhon si Tammarat, to tourist  destinations like Chiang Mai.
In Laos thus far, however, we have glimpsed only two ends of the spectrum – the extremely rural and isolated villages in the northern highlands, and the guidebook tourist hot spots like Luang Prabang and Vang Vien.

Perhaps we have missed the Lao equivalent to those middle-sized cities, or  perhaps fewer exist. I personally really enjoyed the atmospheres of the fairly developed towns and cities in Thailand that had been built up from the inside – with hipster undercurrents – and in a seemingly ‘Thai’ way, by and for Thai people.

IMG_6296

The Mekong river separating Thailand (the far bank) from Laos

In Thailand, my Facebook friend count went up by probably 5%. We were asked, almost every day, to be Facebook friends with the people who helped us, gave us directions, served us food, etc.
I have not had this pleasure in Laos. In some ways it feels like, in asking to be Facebook friends, the Thai people assumed an equality between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This equality led to a jovial atmosphere, with rapid mutual trust and curiosity. Most people were eager to share their homes, their friends, their lives, and this helped us to feel comfortable and open too.

In Laos this contagious openness seems to be replaced with a hierarchical patron-client relationship, often complete with elements of suspicion or reverence. (n.b. This is, of course, not to ignore the many many people who have been warm and helpful and welcoming to us in Laos. It is rather that the general sentiment feels, to me, more skeptical than in Thailand.)

While in Thailand, having ‘farang’ friends was a symbol of social capital (I was paraded through several villages on the back of a motorbike), in Laos there seems to be more of an emphasis on the nuclear family and community. ‘Farangs’ represent the temporary, those who are passing through – not dependable or accountable with continued presence (not to mention the fact that ‘farangs’ also represent countless misfortunes, like the recent heavy bombardment of thousands of Laotian villages by the US army during the Vietnam War). Indeed while in Thailand I, being the only Caucasian of the Chakrayan Chums, was often sent to ask for help, as usually my presence was regarded with pleasant surprise at worst. In Laos, however, I walk behind the others, am introduced later, do not stand by the road if we want to catch a ride, etc.

IMG_6312

Our new-found Thai cyclist friend Saak taking (one of many) photos of us to show to his daughter

The other day, I spent several hours at a Mama-shop-cum-one-roomed-house waiting for the rain to stop. The very young couple who managed the shop sat watching a Laotian comedy TV show. I watched along, chuckling and trying to understand the plot from the exaggerated facial expressions. At one point in the show, I ‘farang’ approached the house of the protagonist. He was tall, blonde, and wearing a nifty backpack. He held is DSLR camera in one hand and motioned stupidly, asking if he could take a photo of the perfectly normal Laotian family as they led their perfectly normal everyday lives (I think they were eating dinner). They told him, in English, to “get out!” and he just kept standing there looking confused, gesturing with his camera, and occasionally wai-ing to show respect. They finally resorted to throwing a shoe at him, at which point he apologetically flailed his arms around and ran away, but not before snapping a few photos on his way out.

We all laughed out loud at the TV, and the young man looked sheepishly towards me, glad to see I was laughing too.

DSC_0344

A boy in the first highland village between Ban Huay Xai and Pak Udom

 

I feel that Laos, historically and presently, has no major reason to feel welcoming or particularly enthusiastic towards ‘farangs.’  We have done more harm than good, and we often come with many assumptions of what we will find, and then hope that Laos and Lao people with fulfill our expectations.

While riding through Thailand, I very often thought “I could spend a long long time here.” I do not feel that in Laos – instead she intrigues me, bores me, sedates me, shocks me, calms me, irritates me, inspires me. My appreciation for Laos feels more present, unconditional, distant.

I no longer fear Laos, and I cannot claim to understand her either. I hope she feels the same.

 

I am Afraid to Travel

The thought of being the first Singaporean someone has ever seen had never occurred to me before. It only hit me on hindsight, after 2 weeks cycling in Laos, that I might have had the privilege of being that Singaporean (sorry Daniel) for many people here. More importantly, I might have been their first experience with anything to do with Singapore and think that whatever I do, who I am, is Uniquely Singapore.

IMG_6355

I never prepared myself for being an ambassador. Should I be portraying a certain kind of behavior? What kind of behavior? Maybe I should footnote my Sabai Dee  with a  Lah. Maybe I should wear a Merlion or the Marina Bay Sands on my shirt.

I am afraid because I cannot speak or act for my whole country, no matter how small it might be. But somehow, that is what people (not only in Laos) see you as doing. They generalise. Many have formed an image of an American tourist, a Japanese tourist (which I am often mistaken for) and a Thai tourist; no image of a Singaporean tourist, or even an image of Singapore has formed for most people here. I feel like I have a responsibility to all the people in my country – to be constantly wary of what I am portraying, a museum exhibit titled This is Singapore.

 IMG_6176

I want to take away the times I ignored a monk at a wat when I had no interest teaching them English and forgoing my sleep because you don’t deserve to be thought cold and unfriendly.

I want to take away the times when I bargained so hard that you might seem cruel.

I want to take away the times when I regret saying Pom khon Singapore (I am from Singapore).

IMG_6334

Maybe you don’t like eating pineapples by the street everyday and I should take that away too.

Maybe you don’t like searching for cheap food outside the recommendations from tripadvisor and I should take that away.

Maybe you don’t even cycle at all.

Or maybe, just maybe, these people will never get to see you at all.

Then maybe I won’t want to take all these away. Instead, I’d rather heck it all and be what Singapore has made me, wearing it proud on my bicycle.

IMG_6514

Futility

Sometimes I dread writing this blog. I dread drafting a post with my pen and my notebook, attempting to share my thoughts and experiences. After all, what can I share with you dear reader, besides words?

Words betray so much. They come to you as mere pixels on a screen – pixels trying to embody sight, touch, taste, sound, smell and the millions of neuronal pathways that echo after.

I see a little girl, adorned with tribal necklaces and earring stuff of the same sort, but no clothing of any sort; bare skin temporarily shaded by the roof of a mama shop. She gazes at me with a stare so penetrating that I have to look away, unwilling to reveal the inner depths of my self before even I find them. Keeping that unwavering look, she munches on her biscuit, crunching in tandem with the throbbing of my heart. A whiff of river scents emanate from her dirt washed, dirt stained, bleached-looking hair as I taste the khao neow stuck to her hair from my previous meal.

This takes a minute to read a few more to to write, but is a mere second of experience. Have I shared enough? So many details left undescribed, so many moments that precede and even more that await, making this one moment, this descriptive attempt, a memory for me but a mere paragraph for you.

But forgive the inability of my words, for without their failure you will never join me, or set off in search for something that is not merely words.

DSC_0323

How have you travelled?

IMG_5840

We’ve been allowed quite a bit of contrast regarding the way we travel given its rather novel medium. While most of the people we see are either, backpacking, hitch-hiking or flying around, we are cycling.

While we were in big tourist destinations like Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, I found myself asking other travellers, “where have you travelled?”
Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang.

Okay so we’ve been to more or less the same places. But I was irked when I realised how similar our travel might have sounded when they were probably aeons apart. I realised that WHERE you have travelled means nothing. I am more interested in HOW you have travelled.

Mizuki is taking a bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. She complains that the seats on the minibus will be hard and she won’t get to sleep. I tell her that the views she will get are stunning and she won’t feel like sleeping anyway. She says the bus will be too fast for her to enjoy the scenery. I agree.

Danielle shows me pictures of her bungalow overlooking the mekong in Luang Prabang. She says she paid 30USD per night for it. I comment that that is expensive. Her defence is that it is her holiday and she doesn’t mind paying for a luxurious vacation that she can afford.

How we travel varies greatly. Every person travels in a way that is unique to her, motivated by personal reasons.

IMG_6312

For Sak, travelling might be a form of exercise, to strengthen his back after and old injury from an accident. It might also be to take many pictures (what he calls “art art art”) for memories to share with his daughter at home.

For Danielle, her holiday might simply be a short getaway as reprieve from Hong Kong city to enjoy creature comforts at low South-East Asian prices.

For Kotaro and Mizuki, their year long solo travels might be a once in a lifetime chance to see the world before settling into marriage or a long an arduous career in Japan.

Each person’s experience in a place and eventual notions of it become unique to how they travel. But for some, how they travel seems to be limited to the direction of tour companies, tripadvisor and lonely planet.

IMG_5870

A Korean traveller asked me at a restaurant in Vang Vieng, “So, you’ve seen real Laos people?” I told her that the people around her are real Laotians as well, but I see what she means – Laos is not just Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Vang Vieng. I am proud that we are travelling in a manner that takes us beyond the path well trodden and in a manner that makes people ask “how?”

On Getting Ripped Off

For the rugged traveler, thrift is sport.
It is one thing to have traveled around China. It is an altogether greater achievement to have traveled around China at $10 a day. I like to imagine that you get a special stamp in your passport when you walk through immigration afterwards, your clothes wrinkled from handwashing and your shoes smelly from daily wear: “Departed China, summa cum laude

For the student who travels, thrift is necessity.
Our time in Thailand taught us a thing or two about what should cost what. We knew when bargaining was unnecessary, when it was in order, and when it was futile. We could ride up to roadside food stall, order, eat, and then pay what we knew to be the price. If there was argument, it could be settled with a friendly retort in Thai: “Come on, pisau. Do we look like farangs to you?”
Things changed dramatically when we crossed the border and came to Lao. We no longer knew how much things should cost. The exchange rate was unhelpful: a Thai Baht is 250 Lao Kip. We struck out blindly. On our first day in Lao, our three meals cost 60000, 40000, and 300000 Kip.

For the traveler, thrift is luxury.
Thrift is not always a choice you make. Sure, buying snacks at 7-Eleven is a poor start. But what do you do when you’re presented with a hand-painted sign that says pho is 15000? What if every food stall in town has identical hand-painted signs that say pho is 15000? What are you supposed to do, argue with a hand-painted sign? What choice do you have but to pay?

Even for the rugged traveler, thrift is hard-earned.
It comes packaged together with familiarity and experience. Ten days in Lao and a chat with a friendly monk have taught us that pho is not 15, 25, or 75, but 10. When we now go to food stalls, we look not at the menu but at the eeai.
“How much for pho, eeai?”
“15000 Kip.”
“Can we pay you 10000?”
“Okay. Sit down.”

5000 Kip isn’t a lot of money. It is, on last calculation, less than 80 cents. But not paying those 80 cents is more rewarding than you would imagine. Not paying that money earns you a little stamp of approval in the eeai‘s head. She brings out the preserved fish paste and the cray-cray hot chilli that she doesn’t normally serve to falangs. She recommends dishes and later scolds you for dipping your sticky rice in your soup. She gives you a free banana for desert. You request a normal price. She treats you normally.

Thrift isn’t about leaving Laos richer by so many 80 cents. Thrift isn’t about a special stamp in your passport. Thrift is about bananas for desert, lessons in table manners, and burnt taste buds.

Authenticity: The Game of the Tourist

IMG_5495

Chiang Mai: The Rose of the North

Chiang Mai: the rose of the North. The urban sprout-city tumbles over its old fort walls designed to keep out rather than keep in, its tendrils extending its sprawl. Traditional lanna ‘ka lae’ adorn the roofs of swanky spas, wats (temples) advertise ‘monk chats’ (where a monk will sit and entertain your questions for one pre-allocated hour everyday), and the makeshift kway teow stalls yield their space grudgingly amidst chalkboards and banners flaunting burgers, banana pancakes, falafels, sushi, even halal seafood. When dusk falls over the Mae Nam Ping (the Ping river), the neon burns and form a fevered latticework advertising aussie pubs, irish pubs, regular bars, seedy bars, and even seedier KTV bars and massage parlours.  The nightmarkets overflow the streets and spill over into the Wats, bringing with it the excesses of fried sausages, bubble tea, owl necklaces, woodcarved frogs, surprisingly well-done Buddha paintings, and the ubiquitous elephant harem pants – the defining uniform of the newly minted Western traveler on her Southeast Asian jaunt. Chiang Mai: The rose of the North.

"Farang" is foreigner

Only in Chiang Mai

IMG_5463

The token Rasta themed bar in Chiang Mai

We left on the morning of the fourth day. We hit the North highway and swam past greying industrial buildings, nondescript residential areas and finally, when free of the city’s gravitational pull, out into the open. I checked in with the chums – “how did you guys feel about Chiang Mai?” Most of us were unimpressed with Chiang Mai.  We felt that Chiang Mai was too much. Too touristy, we casually dismissed.  Too different from the Thailand we had grown to know and love: one that was more a continuum of people, villages, and homes, and less the collection of snapshots of ‘points of interests’. Too different, yet too similar to so many other popular Southeast Asian tourist destinations (Luang Prabang confirmed this). Admittedly, all of us took our share of creature comforts. Warm showers, and more pressingly, food that was not Kway Teow, Pad Thai or Khao Pad (the holy trinity of Thai food on the road, with the occasional thankful inclusion of Kapow Moo). Kei had her Indian food fix, Anshuman his club sandwich, and I, somewhat self-consciously, found myself with a Burger King Whopper on the second day. Despite the hypocrisy inherent in the notion, we found it easy to think lightly of the throngs of youngsters in Chang beer singlets and elephant pants, of haggling and Ipad photo-taking Chinese tourists, and of fat balding men with their Thai honeys. Back then, It was easy to dismiss Chiang Mai, in all its lights, capitalism and tourism, as being a less authentic Thailand.

What is authenticity? What does it look like? For what reason do we sit on our high horses claiming we’ve seen ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ Thailand? Kei had lamented in our correspondence to Prof. Johnson (our Yale-NUS professor specializing in anthropological research in Thailand. He kindly taught us Thai, and also incidentally happens to be our no. 1 fan on this blog!) that she felt tired of the unoriginal, unauthentic tourist trap that was Pak Beng, Laos, where the slow boat to Luang Prabang discharges hordes of tourists to refuel. Prof. Johnson replied ‘everything that you see is inauthentic, and so, everything that you see is authentic. Deciding what is authentic or inauthentic is the game of the tourist. You are beyond that now.’ Perhaps that was the question all along: does authenticity even exist?

DSC_0353

Is this authenticity?

I believe that this ‘authenticity’ as we know it does not exist. Most times we use it to vaguely refer to the ‘traditional’, or the ‘real’ and ‘unadulterated’ part of the country. It seems like authenticity exists where few or no other tourists can be found. Authentic happens when we pat ourselves on the back for exploring off the beaten track; authenticity is having the som tam over the pineapple fried rice (apparently not a thing at all in Thailand. Check out Marcus’ post on food).  This seems fine but using the notion of ‘authentic’ versus ‘inauthentic’ automatically implies certain assumptions and biases that we would do well to consider.

IMG_6126

Off the beaten track *pats back*

IMG_6051

Definitely not a usual tourist experience

To the traveler, authenticity is almost always a value laden word which squirms and wiggles to find a clearly defined gap to divide between the authentic, and the unauthentic and ‘touristy’. The gap doesn’t exist but the division barges itself  in unceremoniously and clumsily anyway. This division attempts to cut across experiences, peoples and time. Authenticity starts to bias experiences and people independent from any form of tourist revenue as being more representative of culture, as if the lives of those in the tourist industry do not count for a part of a country’s ways. Authenticity tries to put an arbitrary time-stamp where we freeze what it means to be ‘Thai’ as being synonymous with being traditional or ‘cultural’, whereas quickening globalization and a country’s runaway modern development are treated like unruly children to be unseen and unheard. ‘Authenticity’ chops a country into convenient bite-sized chunks, where we pick and choose and give value to our own idiosyncratic and uninformed image of ‘authentic’ (nevermind that we are the outsiders being all silly and presumptuous trying to decide what is authentic for them). ‘Authenticity’ is the denial of a people’s privilege to their changing culture amidst changing times, of humming our own tune while covering our ears and refusing to hear the many layers of what’s truly being sung.

‘Everything that you see is inauthentic, and so, everything that you see is authentic. Deciding what is authentic or inauthentic is the game of the tourist. You are beyond that now.’

If authenticity is not a helpful term for a traveler, how then should we begin to think about the differences within Thailand that we’ve seen? How do we account for the different influences that shape a place? Although we can’t say anything about authenticity, it remains that Chiang Mai, with all its foreign influences and pressures is a very different beast from say Ban Thung Maha, a quiet and rustic village in Southern Thailand. Though no less authentic, the former is less ‘Thai’ (in the narrow sense), only in so far that it piles on many more layers of influence that is non-Thai. Are these non-Thai influences considered assimilated and integrated into Thai culture? If not, where is the point at which it does? Instead of trying to find the authentic, I found that thinking about cultural transmission, assimilation and evolution, is a much more helpful lens for the traveler trying to make sense of these differences. In my next blogpost, I will be unpacking the concept of cultural transmission from the perspective of a traveler, and to delve deeper into the relationship between tourist destination and the tourist.

IMG_5833

Skip to toolbar