Tourist’s Guilt / Travelling Softly

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‘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…’

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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