Change Yourself…Change The World.

Tourism and Thailand
November 13, 2008, 5:29 am
Filed under: Thailand


This is originally a reflection paper I did while attending Global College’s CRC Program. This post was not originally associated with this blog, but I have put it up here around the estimated date written. I thought readers would find these informational, educational, and entertaining. Please note that these posts are much longer than the usual ones, since they are papers.

A summarization of this reflection: Globalization and Tourism, and whether it has taken a toll of Thai culture.

KhaoSang Road, Bangkok, is quite possibly the most touristy part of the city. As soon as I stepped foot on the street the first thought that came to my mind was “Finally, India again!” Call centers and Internet cafes loomed at me from every corner. Men in tuk-tuks trundled by, hoping to swindle a tourist or two into paying large sums of money to show them around Bangkok. Clothes, shoes, books, and food stalls spilled out onto the street, and every step I took was followed by a flurry of Thai men chorusing “Hello, ma’am? Yes?” As overwhelming as these sights can be for a new traveler, I felt right at home.

It was the most relaxing and luxurious week of my life, and the entire city catered to every pleasure I felt like indulging. I got a massage almost every day for as little as seven dollars an hour. I bought clothes and books, I ate delicious and filling Mexican, Indian, and Thai food, and I stayed in a nice little hotel for only two hundred baht a night. I spent my days napping, eating, and reading. And whenever I felt like venturing out, there were countless things I had at my disposal. I could walk into KhaoSang and enjoy a delicious Italian meal, or I could wander over to a small food stall and get some Pad Thai, or I could go out at night to a bar or shisha hut and hang out with some farangs and local Thai people. It was blissful, it was heavenly, and it was the perfect week off from school.

And after my week of haven in Bangkok, Chiang Mai only made it better. Absolutely delicious gourmet food served for dirt-cheap. A gorgeous hotel with a large queen bed, bathroom, balcony, and room service, just for me. Everywhere I went were signs for a massage course, a cooking course, a Thai course, an opportunity to ride the elephants, an opportunity to rent a scooter for the day, an opportunity to study Yoga or meditation. The possibilities for tourists in Chiang Mai, and in Bangkok, and probably in all of Thailand, are endless.

But as soon as I stepped into Bangkok, a little seed of doubt in me started to grow, continuously throughout the days until I got to Chiang Mai and finally addressed the problem head-on: where was this CULTURE? What were the Thai people about? What was it that they liked to eat; that they liked to do as a pastime; that they think is socially acceptable and culturally normal? Every single Thai that I’ve met has been a Thai that has catered to my needs. Whether it is Chai, the incredibly nice man who has a bar across the street, or Adam, the sweet old gentleman who owns the hotel- without me being here as a tourist, these things would not exist.

Not only that, but what exactly is tourism? It seems every ‘tourist’ that comes to Thailand, or India, or Bali, or any such destination HATES being called a tourist. To be a tourist is to just pay money to relax and enjoy the things around you instead of working. This is exactly what we are all doing. But we don’t want to be called ‘tourists.’ “Oh I’m a photographer,” says Jason. “Oh, we’re in Chiang Mai studying for two months,” explains Brittany. “Oh, I’m here to study meditation and further my spirituality,” pronounces Sam. But we’re still all TOURISTS. We still all eat in the restaurants that the Thai have built for tourists, we still stay in the hotels that that Thai have made for tourists, and we still pay for the courses that are created for tourists.

I felt this incredibly strange energy in KhaoSang Road, like all of the foreigners were trying to avoid each other because they’re in search for something more ‘authentic’ than conversing with someone back in the West. Pico Iyer explains it perfectly. “Bangkok was the heart of the Orient, of course. But it was also every Westerner’s synthetic, five-star version of what the Orient should be: all the exoticism of the East served up amidst all of the conveniences of the West” (Iyer, 312). While everyone is in this search of the ‘exotics’ of Thailand, we’re all looking at each other, judging each other, speculating who is the rugged traveler and who’s the tourist, who’s coming to experience the culture and who’s coming to buy tacky over-priced ‘hippie’ things (though we all do it), who’s here to experience new things and who’s here to experience the same old thing in a different way? It’s a question of who is real and who’s not.

In retrospect, I associated India with Thailand solely because of the tourism in both countries. KhaoSang Road, Bangkok, is just another Pahar Ganj, Delhi. India and Thailand both know exactly what it is that tourists are drawn towards while traveling. “The Thais, moreover, seemed to know exactly what their assets were- melting smiles, whispering faces, a beseeching frailty, a luxurious grace- and exactly how to turn those virtues into commodities that the West would covet” (Iyer, 313).  And now that I look around Thailand, I wonder, where exactly IS the culture that I came here to study? Everyone that I’ve met seems to be catering to my pleasures. Pico Iyer asserts that it is in part because so many poor countries of the East idolize the West. “If money does not buy happiness, neither does poverty” (Iyer, 314). And moreover, because of this constant state of tourism coming through to the East, the people are slowly starting to lose their own cultural identity. Everyone, inadvertently, helps with this. I have even helped with it, whether it was giving pens to little children in India, or sending my Tibetan family some American CDs.

I don’t want to be thought of a tourist here, in Thailand. I like to tell myself that I’m here to study, that I’m here to learn about religion and social issues and the true culture. How can I learn about the culture in Thailand when everyone is urging me to go bungee jumping, or to spend a day at the tiger kingdom, or to take a cooking class? Should I accept that this is truly what Thai culture IS? A culture that is there to accommodate foreigners? Certainly tourism has greatly contributed to their economy. Thousands of businesses have sprung up, tuk-tuk and taxi drivers have people to drive, and places of attraction to what Thailand is “really about” is all that I see and have known in Thailand for the past month I’ve been here. Has their country turned into a culture that is solely for the entertainment of the ‘richer’ ones? “Now the question that has arisen is whether this opening up, internally and to the external world, is threatening to deform Thai culture and its style, whether these will be ‘modernized’ in the process of the globalization of culture to the point of becoming a mere caricature of their time-hallowed image.” (The Thai Opening Up to the World, 13) And what’s amazing about this is that it seems to be OUR fault that their country has turned into this. “Probably the most powerful single factor that led to the opening up of [Thai] society was America’s massive involvement in Vietnam” (The Thai Opening Up to the World, 13). Since Bangkok became a station for the American army, tourism flourished there. People saw that they could make businesses catering to the ‘rich white man’s’ needs.

I find that I do enjoy Thailand more than I liked Taiwan, but it made me question whether I liked Thailand better because I’m in this perpetual state of living in a place where the culture is looking to cater to MY needs, because I’m the rich white Westerner who will pay to live in their hotel, eat at their restaurant, and buy their products. And this makes me look to Taiwan. What exactly about Taiwan is more ‘authentic’ than Thailand? Because they aren’t catering to every tourist’s needs in Taipei? But hasn’t Taipei become another Westernized city? There are 7/11’s EVERYWHERE, strip malls all over the place, McDonalds, Burger King, advertisements for face cream and jean shorts, the MRT. Taipei is the more modernized (and expensive) version of Thailand. Moreover, reading the “Playing in the Valley” handout that Kerry has given us has shown exactly how even tourists in the East have transformed tiny little hill tribe cultures into vast entertainment industries to cater to tourist’s needs to ‘get away to the mountains for a weekend.’

What exactly am I looking for when I travel? Where is this ‘authentic culture’ that I am seeking? Is there even an authentic culture anymore? Or is it because travelers and foreigners like me have come to Taiwan and Bangkok and the East and befouled their cultures with my iPod, my camera, my face cream and designer clothes?

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