South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: The Accidental Farang. (Part I of The Farang)
Date: May 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 series.

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, eating?

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 kitchens.

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; same people.

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 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.
  graphical element Neil Peart
from the song "A Farewell to Kings"
performed by Rush