Authenticity: The Game of the Tourist


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


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?


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.


Off the beaten track *pats back*


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.


2 thoughts on “Authenticity: The Game of the Tourist

  1. Think for a little bit about tourism, why tourists do what they do, and the role of authenticity. For some tourists, it doesn’t play into it.

    If you’re on a package tour and you go to see Doi Suthep, Chedi Luang, and Ratchaphreuk (check, check, check), just having been in the country is enough. You can go back to Akron (or Xian, or Ang Mo Kio) and say “I did Chiang Mai.”
    Someone else who went will say “Did you see Doi Suthep?”
    “Yes, I did.”
    “Then, yes, you did Chiang Mai.”

    Others just want a nice beach or luxury hotel.
    “We stayed at the Chedi, by the river. The chef is French! It was fabulous. I got a massage.”

    And other tourists seek to distinguish themselves from the above crew. They avoid the word “tourist” and instead use “traveller,” “trekker,” or the like. They jockey for position with each other about their ability to find “the authentic,” or, as the Thai Tourist Authority puts it, “Unseen Thailand.” They rely on the Lonely Planet, but they pride themselves on stepping off of the itinerary in the book.

    Let’s focus on this latter group. French thinker Pierre Bourdieu writes about “Distinction,” how the idea that I can distinguish X from Y, Pinot Noir from Cabernet Sauvignon, Ravel from Bach, Bourdieu from Derrida, “real” larb from “tourist” larb (the former has liver and tripe in it).

    Tell me you guys are eating boatloads of larb and sticky rice now. No? NO? Get on that, ASAP.

    At any rate, distinction becomes very important for determining class, where you fit. For instance, “Becky totally acts like she’s all travelled, but she said her favorite sushi was a CALIFORNIA ROLL! That’s NOT EVEN REAL SUSHI!” So playing the game of distinction is, in this way of seeing it, trying to jockey for position in class.

    Obviously this fits into the idea of authenticity and that game that backpackers play when they ask “have you seen real Laos people?” But authenticity when it comes to people goes a bit deeper. In tourist areas, as with many interactions, there’s always uncertainty and suspicion. Are these people dressing up just for us? Is this beautiful ceremony as meaningful to the participants as I think it is (think about this: we want believers to fully take part in a ritual, but we ourselves stand on the outside unable to do so in the same way. It’s like looking at an ocean and saying “Is it deep? I hope it is deep. It looks deep. I want to tell everyone that I saw a deep ocean.”)? Why is this important? Is it because we tell ourselves that through seeing something authentic, something genuine, we might capture something that we feel that we have lost?

    I wrote an article about this, comparing hill tribe tourism and sex tourism in Thailand.

    We can find something beautiful in works that are self-servingly made to be so. We sneer at people who love Sentosa (or Disneyland, or the worst parts of Chiang Mai’s tourist areas) but applaud the Museum of Modern Art. We’re always asking motivations: did you make this for profit? Did you make this for the gods? Are you wearing that for me? Do you love me? Would you go home with me if I didn’t pay you?

    Roy Wagner, in _The Invention of Culture_, writes that we create culture – our own and the other’s – through an encounter where we want to (and begin to) see it. Use your squeamishness over tourist sites to do just that: toss your own expectations and ideas as well as those that you encounter up into the light and see what you think.

  2. Andrew Johnson says:

    On this “rose of the North” business

    Chiang Mai’s reputation for flowers comes like this:

    In the 1960s, there was a Thai remake of Madame Butterfly, where a Bangkokian soldier falls for a Northern girl. The writers and directors weren’t real familiar with the North, so instead of going there they invented a lot of aesthetics. Flowers were big, flowers were everywhere in the movie, and then Thai visitors to Chiang Mai wanted to see flowers when they went north. Despite the fact that Northerners didn’t really do the whole flower garden thing, and that roses don’t grow in the North, suddenly Chiang Mai was ‘the rose of the north.’ The dream became a part of chiang Mai’s identity, and even today many Northerners will talk about their city as the city of flowers. Like how Dracula becomes associated with Romania when he (the vampiric version at least) is an invention of an Englishman.

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