The Accidental Farang.
(Part I of The Farang)
8, 1995 16:11
20:00 Especen Hotel; Hanoi-Thailand 4 MAY 95
This is a little out-of-order note I'm pasting onto the front
of this entry. There's been some confusion as to overall ordering of these
entries. Sometimes they arrive out of order and other times I'll be working
on two or more at once and the time stamps can seem confusing. From now
on, I'll add an entry number to the subject line of every entry. As I've
got 70 entries in my log (wow!), this is the seventy-first entry of the
This should clear any future confusions as well as keep the entries
in proper order if you sort them by subject.
14:45 Khao Sarn Center; Thanon Khao San, Bangkok-Thailand
:: 23 APR 95
The bistro's name describes its location. We sip Coke and ice
coffee at Khao Sarn Center's sidewalk cafe, smack dab in the middle of
farang [foreigner] infested Khao San street. "Shake that body"
pumps that jam here, competing with that cloying Kenny G. sax-Muzak right
out of the box-whining from another of the multitudinous bistros. I don't
like it much here; I'm fascinated. Where do they come from? Where do they
go? What are they seeking? What did they expect? What do they think?
Certainly they convert plenty of Singha and Sang Thip into 2
baht squat toilet visits. They buy tie-dye dresses, Thai fisherman's pants,
Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts; Guatemalan handicrafts, bootlegged music and
video; watermelon by the slice. All at tourist prices. Identification
specialists print and laminate fake student ID and Press Cards that look
fake. Do these work? The farang write post-cards and sometimes, on arrival,
find letters waiting at the guest house. White-knuckled swaying on the
lurching buses, they strike-up conversation with fellow travelers, strangers
but for pigmentation. At home, standing next to a mate, they would ride
in absorbed silence.
What I am experiencing is a community, really a haphazard congealing
of victims of circumstance. It exists ephemerally, changing moment to
moment as transients pass through. But the community itself is transient.
Few travelers stray far from the places the community inhabits. It travels
with us. It is a community of the highway, rails and sky-of the beaten
path-a mass of Kerouacs on the road. It functions as all communities do.
Provider of refuge, familiar faces, comfortable habits, belonging. Within
the communal embrace we have other hearts on which we shed our sorrows
and frustrations, our joys and accomplishments. We find minds to share
our observations, or contradict them in an understandable way. It is a
necessary community for those who would see distant lands.
Why do I feel as much an outside observer of this traveling community
as of the indigenous one the beaten path winds through?
17:48 Hualamphon Railway Station; Bangkok->Chiang
Mai-Thailand :: 23 APR 95
No surprise, really. Even at home I often feel removed from my
own community. It's more than that. It is with broadening chagrin that
I find myself here.
It is a necessary community for those traveling to see distant
lands. For those traveling to experience different cultures, it is anathema.
The intention, my intention, is to know the people and the place, to live
a documentary experience rather than take in a cultural exhibition, a
performance staged for my dollar as much as my pleasure.
In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta's cultural experience of France
extends only so far as the impact of metric on fast-food product marketing.
The French, it seems, live in a different world than we. Victims of the
metric system, they are unable to fathom the meaning of 'Quarter Pounder
with Cheese' so they call it instead a 'Royale with Cheese'. And did you
know, John, they sell beer in German McDonald's franchises? Airfare is
a terrible thing to waste.
This is the experience awaiting the coach-tour-crowd: get on
the bus; get off the bus; take pictures; get on the bus; get off the bus;
buy trinkets; get on the bus; get off the bus; eat at Sizzler. While on
the bus an alien world eludes them. Buildings, terrain, people, at 100km/hr
they flicker by. Seen through tinted glass, but not heard, not smelled,
not experienced in any meaningful sense of the word. Little better than
TV news soundbytes, these are imagebytes, manageable little packets of
information lacking the context, insight or depth requisite for bringing
an image alive. Rather than life-giving wisdom they fill the hollow image
husks with the broad stereotypes and narrow understandings manufactured
and distributed at home.
A few iterations of getonthebus-getoffthebus may convince you
that the locals smile alot but only diligent research or mindful experience
explains why. Had John not died in the middle of Pulp Fiction for the
sin of leaving his gun in the kitchen while disposing himself of the bathroom,
he might eventually have traveled to Thailand. On his return he might
have told his friends the Thais are a carefree, happy people. That may
be true, but the smiles he'd received more likely meant "You are
an ignorant farang and I suppose I have no choice but to forgive the shocking
insult of your shoes being inside the temple." Then again, John comes
from a world where people would as soon shoot you as smile at you so the
source of his ignorance is clear. John killed people for lesser offenses.
21:16 Bangkok->Chiang Mai-Thailand :: 23 APR 95
Katrin grins conspiratorially as she finishes the previous paragraph.
"Sooooooo cynical", she says. I suppose so, at least in my treatment
of Tarantino's violent fantasy. It is an aside; put it aside. We've met
plenty of Accidental Tourists on this trip while staying well off the
coach-tour track. In two days at Sibu we saw a total of two white people
. . . breakfasting at the McDonalds the morning we departed. A few hours
up-river, in Kapit, we crossed paths with them again only there is no
McDonalds there. This time they were munching lunchtime burgers at Sugarbun,
a Malaysian-owned western-style fast-food franchise. Another time, in
Bangkok, Katrin and I lunched on mediocre Phat Thai and Tom Yam. The restaurant
was packed with locals. A woman walking past did a double-take on my Tom
Yam. "She'll be back", I thought. She was, but not to ask what
we were eating or to sit down at a nearby table, point at the bowl of
inviting soup and say, "I'll have what he's having." No. The
question was directed to me. "Is it safe to eat at places like this?"
As she asks this, the proprietor is unfolding next to us yet another table
for a group of 4 Thais arriving for lunch.
Think about it. Is it safe to ask a guy who's sitting at a table,
What are my possible responses? What kind of a fool am I if I
say, "No" ?
I smiled my best Thai smile and answered, "Yes."
"It's a very hot wok," Katrin expanded helpfully. The
kitchen looks ramshackle and dingy, but cooking and preparation surfaces
are actually quite clean.
The woman nodded, then walked on. Probably to KFC with its sterile
It is this same consumer trepidation that powers the rise of
franchise food. In unfamiliar territory we stop at McDonalds, Sizzler,
Pizza Hut and KFC. Not because we're particularly fond of the food. We
eat there not for the enjoyable culinary experience and pleasant atmosphere
but for the relative safety of planned mediocrity. If nothing else, it's
'safe' and 'edible'-we at least know what we're getting. With Ralph's
Diner, or that dingy sidewalk food-stall, who knows?
It is this same trepidation that powers the traveler's community.
21:05 Tanya House; Chiang Mai-Thailand :: 24 APR 95
There's a certain level of inertia that guides travelers. Between
word of mouth and budget travel guides the beaten path is fairly well
mapped out. This creates an unusual situation. With the significant destinations
agreed upon, there are only so many options for connecting the dots-computer
scientists call it 'the traveling salesman problem'. The result is that
we often map the same path through the same destinations and find ourselves
running into the same travelers time and time again.
In part, it's what makes the community of transients a transient
community. A community is a set of familiar faces, people you know on
some intimate level.
But a community is also a larger collection of people living
together who, though often strangers, share common needs, desires and
interests. No matter how swiftly the faces change on Khao San road the
commonalties of travelers maintains communal continuity: different faces;
So it's kinda like light behaving both as a particle and a wave.
To the traveler, the community goes with them wherever they go. To the
local, the community is always there ready for the next traveler to arrive
or preparing this one to move on.
9:49 Tanya House; Chiang Mai-Thailand :: 25 APR 95
And everywhere travelers go, the locals are quick to respond.
Businesses cater to the traveler's needs, and dollar, by learning English,
printing English information and signs, serving western foods, installing
western toilets and charging 'special' western prices. Travel agents and
tour operators multiply. Before long these become established as tourism
districts, like Khao San in Bangkok or around the Swiss Hotel in Georgetown.
As the area becomes more comfortable and supportive of travelers, the
locals flee, except those with businesses there. It is not unusual in
these districts for restaurant and hotel clientele to be entirely farang
but it seems downright weird.
I grew up in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire in, Gilford, a
rural town with a winter-time population of 3,000 that exploded to 10,000
between Memorial Day and Labour Day. The state government of Massachusetts,
our southerly neighbor whose population is the source of numerous summer-time
visitors, developed an ad-campaign to promote big business there. The
campaign was called "Make It In Massachusetts" and bumperstickers
featured that slogan and a picture of a fist with the thumb turned up.
Some enterprising New Hampshirite made alot of cash with a bumpersticker
reading, "Make It In Massachusetts; Spend It In New Hampshire".
On this one the thumbs-up clenches a fistful of dollars.
We didn't care for tourists much, but we gladly took their money.
Although most tourists would say they came to New Hampshire for the scenic
beauty and peacefulness of the countryside, the locals knew better. They
might drive through the countryside but when the kids started howling
they stopped at Weirs Beach, Funspot, Yogi's Jellystone Park or any of
the other thousands of tourist traps erected along the beaten path. They
bought souvenirs made in Taiwan and 'rural handicrafts' made from Butterick
patterns. They played mini-golf and went candle-stick bowling, activities
of the vacationing. The 'Massholes' spent it in New Hampshire and it seemed
to matter little on what it was spent.
Their unfathomable spending choices endeared them to us only
for the cash it put in our pockets, but the reasons we didn't like them
were far more complex than a disagreeable fondness for plastic tomahawks
and snow-storm globes. Ignorance is the plague of tourism and tourists
always seem to treat locals as if it's the local's duty to save them from
that ignorance, even when there's no money changing hands. Locals hate
to be treated like servants by ignorant tourists. If there're a few bucks
in it they'll glibly put up with the insult so long as the tourist doesn't
complain about being over-charged, as they often do.
But I suspect the fuel that fires this contention is the relationship
between tourist and local. Tourism is the local's livelihood. As much
as locals hate the way tourists noisily dash about littering and generally
making a fuss, they must smile and be pleasant in order to coax the miscreants'
wallets open. This is one of those ugly 'one-down' relationships and the
locals resent their position in it. Locals loathe admitting this.
Retaliating in the only way they can, locals keep the most tranquil
and scenic locations as far off the beaten path as possible. We knew the
best places to water-ski and fish, that the short drive up to the trailhead
on Mt. Belknap provides a spectacular view of 'Golden Pond' and that the
scenery from the fire look-out at Belknap's peak is unparalleled in the
region. We knew about the abandoned castle above Route 11-C and the millionaire's
mansion on the secluded hillside. When entertaining friends from afar,
we'd eat at the best restaurants, not the most visible ones, and tour
the lake on the mail boats rather than the big tour ship, because the
former made mail drops at little Islands and wound its way through narrow
passages, giving an up-close look at Island life. And because they cost
less and had fewer tourists along for the ride. And we kept all these
to ourselves, or shared them with those few who gained our confidence.
So while sitting at Khao Sarn Center two days ago the realization
came to me, suddenly, that I'd pulled into Funspot with its parking lot
full of Massachusetts license plates. I understood, then, why Georgetown
had given me the Eeebie-Jeebies: Not only was I in a tourist trap, no
far worse than that, I had Masshole plates myself.
In some small way, choosing to be there made me a tourist...like
making Puerto Vallarta the only stop in Mexico. <shivers>
Continued in Part II
Patrick. -- Responses Sought --
- When they turn the pages of history,
- When our deeds are past, long ago,
- Will they read of us with sadness,
- For the seeds that we let grow?
- Alms paid to the castles in the distance.
- Eyes cast down on the path of least resistance.
from the song "A Farewell to Kings"
performed by Rush