Author Archives: Daniel Soo

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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Authenticity: The Game of the Tourist

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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

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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?

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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.

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Off the beaten track *pats back*

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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.

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The Beauty of Human Emotion

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It’s not hard to feel as if natural beauty rushes down to greet you the moment your tires hit the road. Sunrises peek above the cresting spine of hills, padi root themselves against the tousling wind, and bulls sprawl languorously in the cool mud – all along this gorgeous unfurling road. Having grown up in urban Singapore, I drink it all in.

But I worry about going too fast. I fret about not being present enough, about not looking around with fresh eyes. “Am I just breezing through without fully appreciating all this beauty? Am I becoming jaded?” – it’s this little voice that helps me take the most from the scenery so far. This has been helpful, not doubt, but on one ride I wondered whether this was a bias which left out other types of beauty. Beauty that we often let slip by – too busy or too blind to notice that which is couched in the mundane and ordinary.

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Thailand, you are a land of rolling hills and verdant green; but today I will introduce a wonder closer to home and heart but no less awe-inspiring. Human emotion – in its rich weave of textures and colours – is beautiful.

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Monks that we befriended in Songkhla, Thailand and went alms collecting with.

The classifier for the monks in Thailand is ruup, which means picture. Ruup is used because the monks are the images of Buddha. Beyond the saffron robes and the arms-bowl, it is sometimes hard to imagine the person before, or behind, the image of the Buddha – as a man, a son, a grandson, or as the village boy. These relationships and the emotions invested in them became real for us during the three monk initiation ceremonies that we have been invited to (or at least found ourselves stumbling upon). All three have been slightly different, but each has revealed an intimate slice of the confluence of emotions that spills over on that important day.

Like a sunrise, these emotions are revealed slowly to all those who have the patience to wait and observe. We saw cheery greetings and handshakes from friends and relatives from the village or the next. We saw pats-on-the-back and firm squeezes of the arm with the men, and tittering conversation and excited hugs with the women. We saw the proud 70-year old matriarch commanding the entire production line responsible for lunch. We saw the grandfather receding to the background, slowly sucking on a cigarette deep in thought.

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Production line to keep everyone well fed and happy at the ceremony

 

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Enough food for the entire village: Marcus tries his hand at cooking as Kei creeps behind. Look at the size of that scoop!

 

We were farangs (foreigners) in spandex and sunblock. We were first fed and fussed over in great hospitality. However, when it came to the most intimate moments of the head-shaving, we inadvertently dropped away. We became invisible observers within the entire village now pulled in a tight orbit around the not-yet-bald heads of two initiates.

 

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Girl offers a bar of soap, and lady with the ceremonial bowl of water and flowers looks on as the father begins the shaving.

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The whole scene of the head-shaving. Undoubtedly a whole village affair.

Shaving an initiates head is an operation that requires an entire village. There is a buzz and bustle of activity as everyone tries to help. Some manage to help more than others, and clearly no one is an expert. A man snips away with a pair of scissors ineffectively, only to be joined by another with a razor. The razor is dull; he gets shooed away as the men impatiently shout for more razors. In the interim, women seize this opportunity with ceremonial bowls on hand to sprinkle water and flowers on the initiate’s heads. At this point, a whole pack of fresh razors arrive and the operation continues. The two initiates belong equally to the village, and relatives and friends swarm and rotate between both. A mother blinks away a tear in her eye, dipping her head away from eye contact. She smiles bashfully and shakes her head. A younger sister manages to break an initiate’s concentration long enough to win herself a reassuring smile. The initiate returns to his rites or thoughts, as his hair falls soundlessly into the leaf he carries.

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Mother and son sharing a moment before the shaving begins.

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The finishing touches. Just the sideburns and the eyebrows left.

Like a sunset, these emotions flash for a glorious instant, and then disappear. The outsider, grateful for her momentary invisibility, blends into the moment without disturbing it. She is bombarded with the unadulterated intimacy of a family’s affairs – each unspoken nuance played preciously over one’s face and hands, every person intertwined with every other person in a mutable web of relations.

The initiates, now with shaven heads and eyebrows, wear white and gold robes. They smoke cigarettes while the conversation mills around them. The first part of their initiation is over. They will soon be accompanied in a procession to the temple where they will fully become monks.

It would be foolish for me to believe that I can fully understand or empathise with the whirl of raw emotion on display that day. Travelling makes one acutely aware of the rift that cultural context can present when it goes unappreciated. I found out recently that it is common for men in Thailand to become monks for a few years (either as a probation period for an extended stay, or as a form of devotion), and that becoming a monk is often an intentional decision to achieve merit for one’s parents, especially one’s mother, who cannot become a monk herself.

While I have the benefit of knowing this now, I will still never know exactly what the mother felt as she shed tears that day. Emotion is ephemeral, vastly personal, and impossible to capture or to claim. It probably doesn’t help that as humans we are terrible communicators of emotion too. We communicate emotion clumsily thorough words, actions or images; we use lego blocks of interior experience to construct crude approximations of meaning only to never find out how accurate we actually were.

It’s strange but maybe this is precisely why emotion is beautiful. We will most probably never be fully competent in accessing and communicating emotion, and we are just as likely to forever keep trying. But when emotion is shared in its special, fleeting, dysfunctional way – whether in the village affair of monk-hood, a mother’s tender gaze, a girl’s winning birthday smile, or in a moment of kinship despite being culturally worlds apart – the beauty of emotion offers its magic to you. The beauty of warmth and love of sunsets, serenity and knowing of the oceans, and the beauty of emotion – the ones that bind us all – waving and rippling on the rolling hills, unfurling on this gorgeous road we call life.

All we have to do is to look for it.

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Pi Sao (older sister) Joe and her 9 month old daughter Chong Kuan. Ban Thung Maha, Thailand. Chong Kuan’s eye is swollen because she has a mosquito bite on her eye.

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We celebrated Kung Ten’s (literally dancing shrimp) 15th birthday at Surat Thani, Thailand. We were all honoured to receive t-shirts from her which reads ‘Surat Thani…by Kungten’. Thanks to her, we now have a proper band name and band T-shirt! Watch out for the Suratthanis by the Kungtens / The Dancing Shrimps. What an inquisitive and sweet girl with an amazing voice.

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Our second night at Pi Sao Joe’s and Pi Chai (older brother) Joke’s house. We were invited to stay over at their house when they saw us at their shop and we ended up spending a full day with them and their friends riding horses, catching crabs, picking durians and coconuts, and going to the beach. We cooked this meal together.

 

 

The Basikal of Malaysia

Despite how short our one week stint in Malaysia was, we definitely captured many interesting shots of the bicycle and its various uses. Much of this was possible with the help of our lovely host and translator Ru, who sped us around in her ‘Ru-mobile’ to hunt down various aunties and uncles on bikes.

To continue my previous post ‘The Technology-Practice of the Bicycle”, I hope that this post will help to bring out the mutable relationship of the bicycle and the user, and the ways that this instructs both cultural and organisational changes. By stringing these photos into broad themes of function, heritage and transference, and emerging cycling culture, we hope to make some sense of the story of the bicycle and its users in Malaysia.

 

 Function

The first thing that we noticed about the bike in Malaysia was its diversity in its appearance, form and function. While the creativity within these various uses were immediately evident, what struck me was how closely the form of the bicycle suited the needs of the user – sometimes in really interesting ways. In an age where we look for the swankiest and the snazziest toys to own, some of the folks in Malaysia made me think about valuing a piece of technology for exactly what you need, and not for the blinking lights, the bells and the whistles.

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This bicycle was converted to a food cart. The bicycle no longer works and its tires have been flat for ages but it functions perfectly fine as a food cart. Similar food carts create a distinctive street food culture in Butterworth, Penang. This particular cart sold cai fan (mixed rice), alongside another cart selling liang cha (cooling tea). Both vendors were equally pai seh (embarrassed) about posing for a photograph though. This photo shows how the creative use of the bike has both cultural and organisational (economic) effects in interesting ways!

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Of course, the bicycle is still a very common method of transport for children to get to school. This boy is one of many whom we saw as we were on the road. The bike that he uses is typical of the Chinese produced bikes commonly found in the bike shops of Malaysia.

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This man is a Karang Guni (rag and bone man) we saw in Butterworth, Penang. Note how he resourcefully maximises the real estate on his bicycle by using bungee cords, wooden boxes, a basket and his handle bars.  This bike is one of the oldest ones that we have seen, but it suits his purposes perfectly.

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We saw this boy in Merbok, Kedah. This was one of the snazziest bikes that we had seen in a while. He claims he uses the bike on weekends to go mountain biking. We didn’t see any hardcore trails but he might have been referring to he hill we climbed the next day. We saw few but notable numbers of other similar users of the bike. This may be a sign that the bike is becoming increasingly popular as a form of recreation for the privileged.

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This lady cycles to work at a biscuit factory daily. Her bicycle is an example of the locally produced bikes that used to be very commonplace in Malaysia, but is no longer produced. She mentioned how she spent a long time looking for this bike after her old bike became spoilt beyond repair. She has been holding on dearly to this bike for 20 years since. She has held on to this old model for so long because the low bar allows her to step over easily to get on. She knows how hard it is to find a similar bike nowadays, and so would rather constantly fix it rather than replace it. We chanced by her again at the bike shop changing out her broken seat!

 

Heritage and Transference

We managed to uncover a bit of the heritage and nostalgia surrounding the bicycle. The older generation seems to have fond memories of the type of bicycles that were commonplace back in the day. We saw a common trend of this heritage being slowly and inadvertently lost to a new form of cycling culture.

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This is the first bicycle shop that we visited. The man has run the business for the past 16 years, and got into the business because it was good money at the time. He says that he no longer holds the old antique bicycles because no one wants them anymore. When asked what the biggest change all these years has been – he repleis that bicycles are no longer a means of transport for the poor, but increasingly a recreational vehicle for the rich.

 

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We barely caught this lady as we drove past. She proudly shows of her bike after some coaxing and gave us high fives afterward. She said that she has been using the bike since she was a teen. Despite her age at 70, she continues to ride, and even carries loads on her rear rack.

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This is one of the oldest bike shops in town. Check out the metal roof! If you look beside Ru, you see the same lady who has come to fix her broken seat!

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Although the exterior and interior design of the shop has not changed much, its interesting how all the bikes that they hold are all new models, mostly produced in China. When asked about this, the owner mentions how they once had a huge shipment of old locally produced bikes which they found impossibly difficult to sell off. This shows how the changing preferences of consumers organises and changes the industries of the bicycle from within.

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Ru remembers this exact same uncle from her childhood! When asked if his son is going to take over the shop, he shakes his head and says that his son works at a company in town and that the shop will just have to close down. Although he looked slightly disappointed, he seems to have come to terms with this.

 

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Ru reminiscing about the times when she was a young school girl who used to cycle her bicycle here to get it fixed.

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This lady brought her son to fix his bicycle. She says that she used to frequent the shop when she was young. She no longer cycles much, but she returns to the shop with her son whenever necessary. The owners of the shop mention how their customers are predominantly the children of their past consumers. To me, this spoke of transference and renewal of the bicycle culture in Malaysia. Although the heritage may be increasingly lost over the years, this transference passes a bit of it on to the next generation.

 

 Emerging Cycling Culture

As the bicycle culture of the past slowly fades away, we see how the bicycle is nowhere near dead, just in a different form. We witnessed how most riders were predominantly the old and the young. This section captures the spirit of the bicycle being carried on.

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In Malaysia, kids start to ride early. This is Edam with his bicycle. Taken in Merbok, Kedah.

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Kids can only ride if bikes are produced to their size. Check out how small this frame is! Meant for kids 4 and up.

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We saw multiple fluorescent adolescent bike gangs. These bicycles are predominantly fixies and very popular with the young. In this picture you see three bigger boys and one smaller boy with a less loud bike. Before this picture was taken the smaller boy took off the cap of his older friend and tried to pose with it. Observing these social dynamics and understanding how much the bike can be a form of identity and of social grouping, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the boy ‘graduates’ to a similar bike in a few years time!

 

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This boy rolled by on his back wheel while we were making a rest stop. It shows how the young are using the bike as much more than merely a means of transport!

 

The week in Malaysia opened our eyes to the different forms and ways in which the bicycle continues to evolve within Malaysia. Do similar trends continue in Thailand and beyond? Can anything be said about a greater Southeast Asian story about the bike and the emergence of a new cycling culture distinct from the past? Does Thailand hold on to its heritage in a different way? Stay with the chakrayan chums to find out!

The Technology-Practice of the Bicycle

Anshuman and I acting our age

Anshuman and I acting our age

As touring cyclists, the bicycle is undoubtedly central to the experience. The technology of the bicycle becomes our predominant method of transport. However, even with slightly more than a week of road under us, we have naturally begun to see it as more than just that. It’s almost silly how we give a steel frame and two wheels that much emotional investment. We call them names:  Trudy, Martha, Gio, and (tentatively) Walla Walla. Those with new bikes worry about scratches, dings, dents and persistent KTM (Malaysian railway company) stickers.  Anshuman even has his own ritual of elaborate bicycle maintenance that he religiously follows to keep Gio well-oiled and happy. For most of us, the bike goes beyond merely  getting us from point A to point B. When we lock and chain them up at night, we do so not only because we fear losing our means of transport – but also because the bike holds sentimental and emotional value in its connotations of home.

While highly idiosyncratic and personal, these notions on our part may guide us towards a deeper understanding of man’s conception and relationship with technology. In some way, our concept of the bicycle has broadened beyond the utilitarian appreciation of its uses. Perhaps technology cannot exist in isolation – but must be assessed from its dynamic and relationship with its users, and its resultant effects.  Arnold Pacey’s triangle of technology practice is a framework which may be helpful in helping us understand this phenomenon. Ultimately, Pacey believes that a technology never ever stays as merely that; the effect of man’s changing relationship with any technology has effects which ripple out through time, geographies and cultures. In response, Pacey invites us to look beyond the ‘restricted meaning of technology’  to notice the inevitable cultural and organisational aspects of technology, in the triangle of ‘technology-practice’

 

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http://www.e-mentor.edu.pl/_obrazki/art743/rys_1.png

 

We’ll use the bike as an example to try to grasp this ‘general meaning of technology’.

Technological aspects:

Includes the technicalities of how the gears interact with the chain, crankset and casette to produce multiple speeds, how the inner tubes need to be of a certain PSI in order to perform optimally, how the braking different braking systems utilise (V-brakes, cantilever brakes etc.) different mechanisms in order to be effective

Cultural aspects:

How the bike may develop as a status symbol which functions as a signifier of wealth, sophistication or privilege (those snazzy sport bikes?); how the bike may be used as a symbol or a carrier of deeper and less obvious ethical codes or values etc. (the green travel movement heralded by the return of the bicycle?); how the bike may enable a  new and different kind of cultural movement, lifestyle or aesthetic (the huge impact of the bicycle in cities like Hanoi or Beijing?)

Organisational aspect:

How the bike inadvertently or perhaps intentionally includes or excludes different social subgroups; how the use of the bike organises whole industries, employment options, economic prospects (what about the global movement of bicycle production from all over the world to predominantly China? How does that affect these countries?); how the bike enables or discourages certain forms of economic activity etc.

While we will undoubtedly learn much about the technological aspect of the bicycle on this trip – whether from bicycle maintenance 101, patching and replacing tubes, or from hunting down obsolete bike parts in Thailand – I believe that the real story lies beyond that first cursory look. We hope to glean more of the bike’s cultural and organisational aspects through photos and stories of the bikes we see along the way. We aspire to tell the compelling story of the technology-practice of the bicycle throughout Southeast Asia, and in so doing, hopefully uncover the bigger story of its peoples and its places.

 

Daniel

Into Thailand!

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Dear readers and vicarious cyclists!

We’ve crossed the border! We’re currently at a dingy internet cafe near Nahkon Si Thammarat, Thailand – typing away and hiding from the midday sun.

Brace yourselves for the next flood of blogposts!

The Chakrayan Chums,

Allowing you to experience the cycling life (without the abrasions and the sun burns)

 

We’ll leave you with a video of us speaking Thai (or at least trying to)

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The Story of Zul

 

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I type away at a workdesk in a bike shop in Alor Star, Kedah, Malaysia. Thin metal shutters separate this world from the world outside of puttering motorcycles, roaring trucks, and skinned shins and elbows. It’s been only three days, but this ragtag crew of iternerant cyclicsts has expereinced enough to know that this is not our place, nor is feeling welcome a privilege that we deserve, much less expect. We merely pass by. The trucks that rush by continue their taunts, the flies that get into our food do so as carelessly they have been, the good makciks and enciks still find no reason to speak your language, and the directions that they give can confuse, mislead and frustrate you, and none the worse for them. That world is the world that we have come to expect, but that is not the one that we have found. The world that we find ourselves snuggled up in for past two nights – be it separated by metal shutters or residential fences – has been one of warmth, generosity, and of home. Today, we are in Zul’s home/bike shop/both at once.

My fellow chakrayan chums lay sprawled around me on the mattresses that have been inflated and laid out for them on floors freshly mopped. Marcus is still nursing a perpetual food baby only made bigger from the bird’s nest susu (apparently only found in Alor Star) that Zul specially got for us. Meal times for Anshuman are a matter of getting money out of his fanny pack as quick as possible to intercept Zul paying for them. Kei’s bike wheels are clicking behind me as Zul works in the dark (so as to not wake the others) to fix her uneven spokes. “What is sleep? I don’t sleep. Tomorrow your bikes will be ready” says Zul.

All our bikes have been serviced and maintained by Zul and his father for free, despite the obvious service charges chart hanging on the cheery orange walls – prices that we would have never considered with the budget that we have. Without any airs, they took it on their own to make sure they were road worthy – always refusing to be paid, and without expectation of return.

 

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“When was the first time you decided to help people?”

Zul goes into a long rambling annecdote of the first time he saw a German cyclicst get scammed for replacing a dented rim. I’m not sure I got all of it.

“Why are you so helpful?”

“Sometimes I see tourers get tricked. In Malaysia got a lot. So I go with them and follow them, up to Perlis, sometimes even to Langkawi, so they don’t get tricked. “

“Have you always been like this?”

Zul smiles politely. He doesn’t seem to quite understand the question. Eventually he nods and says yes. He explains that he grew up watching his father (another fantastic man that helped us with our bikes) help other people as well, by welcoming other travellers to stay with them.

Zul is quite the character. Zul used to compete for road and mountain biking for the state, and his bike shop has been in business for 7 years. Zul vigorously recommends us to get pepper spray to ward off wild dogs, drunk men (and drunk ladies, in his case) in Thailand. Back at his shop, Zul shows us the dynamo he straps on to his touring bike. This dynamo charges up a batterey which lights up a bulb, charges his phone, and even powers a portable fan. He says he has never seen anyone else do it before, but just thought it would be a good idea. In the next immediate moment he pulls out a electric stunner and turns it on with a loud crack. He explains the only time he has used it before was on a man he shocked because he tried to kiss him. He laughs bashfully when I ask him to pull the evilest face he can manage, and then chases Anshuman around in mock purusit.

 

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Don’t mess with Zul and his favourite electric stunner

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Zul brought us to the Alor Star cutural mueseum

 

The story that I am telling is of Zul. But Zul is not the only speaker for the soul and humanity that we have seen in our short time, and will continue to see in the next 10 weeks. Zul is escorting us halfway up to Kangan, Perlis on his motorbike tomorrow (his father says he would have brought us the whole way if it was a public holiday). As I join my chums and rest for the night, Zul’s light behind me continues to shine brightly on.

 

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Zul and his human powered lightbulb

 

*Posted with permission from Zul, who will be checking out this blog soon*

Daniel

 

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