It’s sad to say, but our adventure in South East Asia is coming to an end. It’s been an amazing three-and-a-half months. I pushed back my flight out of Bangkok twice and still feel like I could spend many more months exploring over here.
Over the course of our travels so far, Alanna and I have had many dinners that went late into the night, drinking [insert each country’s local beer name here], which fueled many conversations about travelling in general, and what it is exactly we’ve been doing here. I have some time now, in Bangkok, and access to a computer, so I thought I would attempt to put some of the things we talked about together in a post.
One of the very popular themes we came across when we started travelling was the idea of having an ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ experience (e.g. trying to “see the real Thailand”). Travellers express this urge constantly, and travel agencies cater them by offering trips to remote tribal villages (“ELEPHANT JUNGLE TREKKING AND LONG-NECK TRIBE VISIT: DISCOVER THE REAL THAILAND!”). Perhaps the sentiment was fueled by Leonardo Di Caprio’s enlightened search for something unique/something more in “The Beach”.
It makes sense that people who travel halfway around the world want to experience something different, but there are several things about the search for so-called ‘authenticity’ that both Alanna and I found a little troubling. I often wondered about the possibility of seeing “the real Thailand.” On a bit of a philosophical side note, I tend to believe we are incapable of truly being able to see and understand another culture, especially when we’re only immersed in it for a few months. Coming from such a different place, we see everything here through the lens of our own culture. Unconsciously, I think we’re incapable of truly letting go of the values we’ve lived with our whole lives, and opening up enough to see “the real Thailand.”
But there’s also something troubling about just the idea of seeing the ‘real’ Thailand. Suppose we were able to completely let go of our own values and open ourselves to another culture. Despite this openness, I think any one picture we would get of that country would be false or insufficient. It sounds obvious, but both the terms country and culture comprise more than simply the sum of their parts. For example, if someone were to ask me to show them “the real Canada,” what would I show them? Would I take them to the CN tower in downtown Toronto, or the slopes of Whistler? Is there one thing I could show them that would accurately encompass the essence of living in that country? I don’t think there is. Even if I took them to Toronto and to the mountains out west, to the entire East coast, to the prairies, and to Quebec, they still wouldn’t understand almost anything about the country as a whole.
But maybe our friend who wants to see Canada wants to get “off the beaten path,” another favourite tourist sentiment. Where would I take them then? A Tim Horton’s in Markham? A paper mill in Kapuskasing, Ontario? A remote village in Quebec where only French is spoken? Would these things be any more Canadian than downtown Toronto or Whistler? Of course not.
All of this is to say, I think this is the case everywhere. You can see many amazing things all over Thailand, but Thailand varies quite a bit from the North to the South. I wouldn’t say that there was any experience that I could have there that would leave me feeling like I had seen the real Thailand. I have seen many of the things that make Thailand great, but there are many things about Thailand, good and bad, that I didn’t see, and likely never will see.
This brings me back to the problem of trying to ‘get off the beaten path’ by visiting a local tribal village. This never had too much of an appeal to either of us, and it took many dinner conversations with Alanna to be able to articulate why we didn’t have the same drive as others to visit them. So hopefully I can do our conversations justice and re-create them properly:
Generally, these trips involve visiting villages where the residents dress in traditional clothing, live off the land, and basically maintain a lifestyle supposedly unaffected by Western materialism and not over-saturated by tourists. But even if all these things were true, does it really make the villagers living there representative of their country as a whole? Taking Thailand, again, as an example: what makes the Long-Neck Karen villages more Thai than Bangkok, or Koh Phi Phi, even? It’s true that these latter places have transformed from what they used to be and are now overrun with tourists, but does that necessarily make them less Thai?
The best way I can articulate this is by making the prescriptive vs. descriptive distinction. The reality is that much of Thailand has changed quite a bit with so much tourism. It’s a very popular travel destination, it has become westernized in many ways, and many places have lost/abandoned the ways of life that people used to lead. Regardless of this being good or bad, it is the reality. Thailand, then, as a place that is becoming increasingly westernized, is the descriptive view of that country. But many people don’t want to see Thailand this way (though ironically, it’s perpetuated and reinforced by virtue of them being there). They want to see it as the ‘exotic’ place that it once was. So they search out the remote villages that offer them the prescriptive view of the Thailand they want to see. If what you want to see is simply remote villages for the sake of seeing remote villages, fine. But to view them as more authentically Thai, is to deny the reality of the current situation of the country.
The other aspect of visiting the remote villages that both Alanna and I found uncomfortable is that we often felt like we had no right to be there. If you do indeed find a remote village that has not just become another tourist trap with the streets lined with handmade souvenirs, it can be an awkward, even unpleasant, experience. Often, you are literally walking through people’s lives and their front yards. If I were at home in Toronto trying to go about my everyday life and every couple of days, without warning, a group of complete strangers trampled over my lawn, pet my dog, peered into my windows, and attempted to photograph my (hypothetical, hopefully) children, I would be pretty annoyed too.
Another issue associated with the desire to ‘get off the beaten path’ is, the desire to avoid heavily touristy sites/cities. I’ll be the first to admit that I wish that many of the amazing places I visited were also less crowded. But for some, the very popularity of a tourist attraction is such a strong deterrent that either they will not go, or it will ruin the experience for them. This is more of a personal preference than it is some deep insight into the nature of traveling, but I refuse to let the fact that a site is busy take away from my experience of it.
Unfortunately, the reason these places are so touristy in the first place is because they are so amazing. It’s an inescapable dilemma in South East Asia. The best example of this I can think of is the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. They are some of the most amazing sights I have seen on this trip. Angkor Wat really is that great. And because it’s so great, tons of other people also want to see it. But does that take away from how great it is? I try not to think so.
On my last day of visiting the temples, I woke up at 4 a.m. and biked in the dark all the way to the temples to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. To my surprise, there were a few hundred other people who had the same idea. The girl I biked there with was really put off by this. Her mind was focused on the fact that it was so busy, rather than the indescribably beautiful sunrise before us — her loss. I guess it’s a goal of mine while travelling: not to let the fact that something may be touristy take away from the essence of what it is that made it so popular in the first place.
I realize that all of this may give the impression that I didn’t enjoy Southeast Asia as much as I did. I assure you, I have nothing but wonderful memories of my time here. Alanna and I are simply two recent university grads who needed to talk about something other than the destinations of our travels every now and then. So this some of what resulted from that.
If you’re still reading this: many, many thanks. I (or Alanna) will do another post soon with some pictures. I realize I don’t have any pictures of the sunrise over Angkor Wat on here yet!
I fly to Kathmandu on Tuesday, and then I will be going on a 25 day trek through the Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas. So it might be a while before I’m able to write another post. I can’t say for sure, but I have a feeling there may not be too much internet access at 18,000 feet.
Tons of Love from Bangkok,
And just when you thought you had made it through our cynical ranting, it keeps going. God speed.
“Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversations.”
As some of you might surmise from the ominous introductory quotation, yes, there is another travel-related diatribe headed your way. If you (a) happen to still be in university or (b) are easily bored, I suggest you skip this entry, as my thoughts on travelling so far are pretty redundant and tiresome and you’re probably already suffering through Derrida or (god forbid) some kind of Science, and seriously, unless you’re some kind of masochist, away with you. However, if you happen to have some spare time on your hands (or are desperately seeking a source of procrastination because introductory paragraphs really are the hardest to write), feel free to tag along, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Thankfully, Sam covered almost everything we’ve been thinking about these last few months, but here are a couple of extra issues we’ve come up against:
1. Generally Obnoxious Tourist Behaviour: the thing about tourists is this: we’re pretty uniform. In fact, in Southeast Asia, you can actually spot us wearing a sort of uniform, normally in the form of genie pants, a t-shirt sporting whatever the national beer happens to be, knockoff havainas sandals, bracelets halfway up one’s arm, and slightly greasy hair (see: every photo of Sam and me on this blog). We have copies of the latest Lonely Planet stapled to our hand. We are all reading The Alchemist or First They Killed My Father or Mr. Nice. In short, white travellers all look the same.
The abovementioned fact tends to result in tourists being treated “like walking dollar signs” in Southeast Asia, in turn spurning a wave of resentment from said tourists, who grow weary of the constant attention from tuk-tuk drivers, bus and hotel touts, bracelet hawkers, etc. etc. etc. But let’s get real here: you are not a local, nor — even if you become an expat and move here permanently — will you ever be a local. However, you are a visitor and a guest in these countries and as such, it is not only your responsibility to behave yourself, but it is also your responsibility to make yourself a person rather than a dollar sign.
Behaviour that harms not only you but subsequently all tourists who visit these countries after you: general drunken tomfoolery, a conspicuous absence of clothing (bikinis: not for the streets in Canada, therefore not for the streets in Asia), haggling over the equivalent of ten cents, snapping fingers at waitstaff (equally unwelcome at home, by the way), and an unwillingness to learn the most basic of phrases (Hello, Please, and Thank you).
After that, it’s surprisingly easy to become an individual. Learn a few extra phrases that help answer most of the questions you are asked (My name is _______, I am from _______). Eat street food whenever possible (and learn how to say ‘Delicious!’ because it always elicits a huge smile from whoever’s cooked your meal). Actually talk to the tuk-tuk drivers. Offer to take them out for a coffee in exchange for a language lesson. Hang out with the waitstaff of your restaurant after hours. Befriend your bus attendant (this worked out particularly well for us in case you hadn’t read https://canadaschmanada.wordpress.com/2011/11/10/thailand-the-north). Both Sam and I have met some unbelievably friendly people here, but first we had to make the effort, and the effort’s well worth it.
2. The ‘National Geographic Shot’: sometimes less politely referred to as ‘slum porn,’ the NGS is the term that Sam and I used to describe certain photographs taken by tourists in areas of extreme poverty. Popular subject matter includes: dwellings in extreme disrepair, villagers going about their ‘humble’ or ‘authentic’ daily tasks (e.g. hulling rice), and — above all else — children, especially naked or half-naked children.
Now, please let me state that Sam and I both have a fair number of pictures of our own that would qualify as NGSs. We, too, started our trip eager to capture such moments and such images. But the more villages you visit, the more poverty you encounter, the more uncomfortable you become taking out your camera. Or perhaps I should say ‘the more comfortable you ought to become,’ since not everybody shares our feelings on this particular subject.
Without getting too deeply into discussions of Orientalism and Othering, the Viewer, the Lens, and so forth unto infinity (thanks, university!) let’s just acknowledge that the aestheticization of poverty poses a problem. The problem is that each time someone whips out their camera to capture a riverside slumhouse on stilts or an elderly woman grinding cardamom pods, the subject matter in question becomes just that: subject matter. All thoughts about the humanity and the reality of the situation are set aside as the photographer considers only what makes the shot aesthetically pleasing (i.e. the light, the framing, the background, etc).
And it is not an exaggeration to say that the behaviour of most tourists while seeking out NGSs is reprehensible. Never once have I met a tourist who bothered to learn how to ask someone’s permission to take a photograph in that country’s language – at best, tourists brandish their SLRs in the villager’s face, point, and snap their shots before the villagers have a chance to register what is being asked; at worst, they make no attempt to ask permission and simply wander through the village, indiscriminately photographing livestock and houses and children.
The problem, essentially, lies in the dichotomy between the tourist’s desire to ‘capture authentic rural life’ and their actual disinterest in its reality. I am generalizing from personal experience, of course, but it is extremely common for tourists here to take dozens of photographs of half-dressed children, encouraging them to stand in certain formations or to make certain facial expressions, then to be not only bewildered but annoyed when the children begin asking for money. The ‘reality’ of the poverty is captured on film because it makes for great looking – children always elicit strong reactions as photographic subject matter – but the actual reality of the situation, that the children are poor, is considered an inconvenience (examples abound: “The kids always seem to want money for the photos, heh?” “They are always out begging – shouldn’t they be in school?” “They don’t understand that if we gave money to everybody, we would be poor ourselves”).
And I know that at this point I’ll be stating the extremely obvious, but here it goes: Western tourists take photos of Asian children in situations they wouldn’t dare to at home. Can you imagine how outraged someone in Canada or France or Sweden would be if an adult who was a complete stranger suddenly and without permission began photographing his or her child? Moreover, orphanages here are considered tourist attractions, whereas no one would dream of visiting an orphanage back home to take pictures of/with the impoverished children there.
The bottom line is this: a human is a human, a home is a home. If you are going to take a photograph of something or someone, be respectful. If you cannot be bothered to learn how to ask for someone’s permission to take a photograph, then you do not deserve – and have no right – to take that picture. If you wouldn’t want someone taking that photo of you, your child, or your house back in your own country, then do not take that photo elsewhere. I know that these are my rules, based on my opinions, but these ideas only developed because when I started travelling, I was making the same mistakes as many other tourists, mistakes I’m still struggling to learn from. The mind should be switched on before the camera, and not the other way around.
Phew. So if you’re still reading this, you must really not want to write that paper. Or you are one of my grandmothers, and therefore bound to at least skim through because you love me. For the rest of youse, I apologize. It’s the internet cafe’s fault for having Microsoft Word.
In any case, I’ll be in Bangkok in a few days in order to get my Indian tourist visa! And I promise to upload some lighter stuff soon. Also, I second everything Sam said at the end of his post – I am so, so grateful for my time here and I have been having absolutely the best time. Sorry that I couldn’t take the university out of the girl, but no doubt a couple more books like The Alchemist* will sort that right out.
From Cambodia with love,
(*p.s. sorry Paulo Coelho, but it’s true)