Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Traveling Thailand for Some Reason

I left Bangkok in a train that brought back a few memories. This shot was taken out of a wide open door while the train is clearly in motion. Just like the ones I rode in India back in 2006. It wasn't the only throwback experience I had. A man sat opposite my seat, smiled and nodded, and pulled out a few napkins to dry his hands. He then balled them up and threw them out the open window. I frowned, raised an eyebrow and made a throwing motion out the window --do you always do that. He chuckled and shrugged --that's how it works here, kid. I didn't return the smile but looked elsewhere. It wasn't until an hour later when he pulled out his badge, hat, and jacket to go on duty that I realized I'd come close to trying to tell off a police officer. Sound familiar?

So I arrived in Chiang Mai without ending up in custody of the law, though someone had to gesture at me to stop walking when the morning national anthem was played in the train station at 8am. Everybody else was frozen, staring dead ahead. I knew it was sign of respect, but to me it looked like all those scenes in sci-fi movies where cyborgs are receiving radio reprogramming or something. A British girl I'd met on the train turned to me quietly and asked something about it seeming just the tiniest bit like brainwashing. No idea what to say to that in the face of the protests happening in Bangkok a few weeks ago.

We checked out a handful of the city's 300+ Buddhist temples, and on the way asked about a famous night market we'd been hearing about. The guy we asked told us it was full of tourists and that people from Chiang Mai called it the “Tourist Market.” But then he proceeded to try to sell us on another market he was clearly getting paid to promote, so I thought he might be having us on.

He wasn't. I checked out the market tonight. This is what I found. Not only that, but this was the second Starbucks I'd seen in about three blocks. I hadn't seen two that close together since being back home in Seattle.

I left and headed into town where all the local action was happening: The Chiang Mai Inthakin Festival. It's a week long celebration that started tonight to invoke the blessing of peace. It's one of the biggest ones to hit the city every year. Tons of stalls selling food and ceremonial flowers, carnival games for the kids, a traditional dance on stage, and a huge variety of blessings happening left and right.

Now, I want to point out something here for other travelers. There's been a good show of interest in travel tips, so we'll start here. This isn't a practical tip so much as food for thought. When you start traveling, especially if you're doing budget travel, a lot of people you meet are going to be very vocally taking a lot of pride in Not Being Tourists and Not Doing Touristy Things. This sounds fantastic, and you too will be tempted to focus on this. It's not a terrible plan, but it's flawed. Here's how:

Let's say you have the aim of Not Being a Tourist and you're where I am, in Chiang Mai, tonight. You see the night market, see the tourists, the Starbucks, the golden arches, etc. etc. and you think “Bah! Tourist Crud!” and scram. You may very well end up at the festival, find yourself in something much less touristy than the night market pat yourself on the back, and hang around. Awesome.

However, if you had come to the festival first, you would have seen, what? Western carnival games, a stage with traditional dancing labeled in English, the odd tourist couple taking pictures, and people trying to sell you stuff. Your reaction? You guessed it: “Bah! Tourist Crud!” and you would have left, looked around for an “authentic” experience, eaten at a deserted restaurant from a cook who really wished he could be at the festival right then, then you would go back to your hostel, pat yourself on the back and go to bed.

See the problem? Yes, you have successfully evaded Tourism. You have also missed out on one of the city's biggest cultural celebrations of the year. Well done.

My point is not that you should accept being a tourist. Far from it. My point is that when you think about your travel philosophy, you're going to have a much better experience if you define it what you are looking for, rather that what you're trying to avoid. If you base your philosophy on a thing you don't like, that thing is what your philosophy becomes totally dependent on. The same travelers who take so much pride in going “off the beaten path” have to put twice as much effort into finding that beaten path, just so they can stay away from it. Most of the time, they don't even succeed in doing that.

It's just like the story my friend Peter told about his public middle school: in 7th grade, the cool thing to do was to try to be “different.” Being different meant wearing black. Funnily enough, everyone started wearing black, and as much as they all talked about being different, nobody actually was. You'll find this a lot in “off the beaten path” travel: a lot of people taking pride in being different, even though they're all doing the same thing.

If you base you philosophy on what you are for rather than what you're against, you're going to be a lot more successful. It works in politics (they call it pro-choice vs pro-life for a reason), it works in middle school (suddenly the kid wearing what he wants is different from everybody and therefore cool), and it works in travel.

My problem with tourism and being a tourist is that the tourist industry sells you what sells, not what's really unique to a place. But I don't deal with this by avoiding tourism, I deal with it by trying my hardest to find the unique stuff. Sometimes those things are as touristy as they get. Just take Machu Picchu. Or the Galapagos. These are some of the biggest tourism centers of the world. But they still have what I'm looking for.

If you really are stuck in thinking about not being a tourist, try thinking about what it is about tourism specifically that bothers you. There's a lot there to pick from. Maybe you're worried about the damage it does to the environment. Maybe you're worried about the effects on traditional ways of life in other cultures. Or maybe you just don't like corny stuff and are more interested in seeing what's happening in a place rather than what's there. Instead of just avoiding tourism, seek out environmental opportunities, or cultural ones. Or travel with an aim to finding a specific local scene, be it arts, politics, nightlife, you name it. If you define what you're looking for by what it is, rather than what it's not, you'll have a much easier time identifying it once you've found it. And once you've found it, that's when the fun really starts.

Here's my example. Today I went to something call the Tiger Kingdom. Scattered around South East Asia are monasteries and organizations that let you go into a tiger's enclosure and have your picture taken. Cute, except that the majority of these places drug and/or chain the poor tigers into submission. So I asked around and chose the place that looked like it had the best record, providing consistent feedback from visitors who saw no chains, said that the tigers were “frisky and active,” and had a vet checking in on them every week. I went to check it out.

I spent my morning with two seven-month-old male active, playful tigers.

My high school creative writing teacher would wring my neck if I put in all the superlatives and adjectives I want to throw in here. All I'll say is that it was just like how I imagined it would be, which is exactly what I came for.

I have to say I was a little worried by how lethargic the full-grown adults in the neighboring enclosures were. I know they're cats and that they sleep a lot, but I had to wonder about the claims of “no sedation.” Also, as a former zoo employee, the enclosures were smaller than I would've liked, and mostly made of cement. More annoyingly, I saw this as a fantastic opportunity wasted, to promote awareness about preserving an endangered species.

So I decided to drop a few hints. The Tiger Kingdom's public email has now been subscribed to a couple mailing lists-- including WWF and the Save the Tiger Fund. I sent a little email myself with the suggestion of raising the rates and donating a good chunk of the increase to one of those charities. It's amazing how environmentally conscious businesses become when they realize it can help them turn a profit.

Did that make a difference? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm willing to bet it was more likely to do so than the people who decided to do nothing about the place. Touristy? Oh yeah, about as touristy as it possible. But I got to spend an amazing part of my morning up close and personal with tigers. I still have tiger fur on my shirt. The photos still make me squirm because it was just that cool.

I don't expect everyone to agree with what I did, or say that they'd do what I did, but I hope it gives you an idea of what I'm talking about when I say travel searching for what you want, not for what you don't want. I hope that idea makes your travels more enjoyable and rewarding. More tips to come.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Interesting post and good points about focusing on what one is looking for rather than avoiding. Not bad advice for life in general. Eager to see pictures when you get a good web connection.----


  3. Tiger kingdom...this is what i'm talk about;-)
    never been there yet..

  4. Okay, so now you have the pictures posted and the one with you and the tiger.......priceless. CVP will be very pleased with this. will get it to him this weekend. lv, anonymom.

  5. P.S. Can't help but think of Pat and Mark when I see that tiger picture.....I won't tell them about it. :) anonymom.

  6. Notnecessarily.Probably not--dilated. Depends on the drug. Your uncle Tommy and I were driving around Washington, DC, and he said. "There's the Washington Monument. I want to go to the top." "Only tourists do that." "I'm a tourist, and I want to go." It was a lot of fun. RB