South East Asia :: March - June 1995

Subject: Farang Redemption. (Part II of The Farang)
Date: May 4, 1995 20:00 Continued from Part I

22:00 Tanya House; Chiang Mai-Thailand :: 25 APR 95

So there's this lowly farang hangin' out with all the other farang in Bangkok and feelin' pretty much like a lowly farang while sipping ice coffee like a farang. But what's a traveler to do?

Throughout Malaysia it was much easier to feel independent in your actions, to feel like the adventurous traveler. To begin with, there just aren't that many foreigners around. Even the beaten path has been tread very lightly. Among the top three accommodation choices listed in the Lonely Planet (The Guide), there may only be two or three rooms hired by white people, particularly off-season. Here in Chiang Mai you'd be hard pressed to find a guest house not housing a single western traveler. As a matter of fact, if there's anyone staying there at all, you can bet it's a westerner.

This is the situation that confronted us in Georgetown for the first time, that continues to dog us into Northern Thailand and that we've not yet adapted very well to. Since then the general response has been to sleep in the tourist district and flee it like Gomorra during daylight hours. In the evening we'd return to relax, play cards and chat with the westerners, write a few lines of this journal and figure out where we wanted to head for dinner. Some days, especially very hot days, a few hours around mid-day would find us back at the hotel or guest house.

On those hot days, and those early evening hours, I'd have rather spent the time on a park bench in the shade of a tree, or some quiet, out of the way bistro chomping on a bagel, sipping cappuccino. Even better if there's a steady trickle of interesting people passing by. Asians apparently don't relax in these typically western ways so the settings prove to be a difficult find, if there are any at all to be found.

So why not do as the Romans do? Asians go about repose in decidedly un-western fashions. I'm not particularly comfortable stretching out in a mosque, Wat or other religious building. I just don't feel I belong there other than to take a respectful look around and depart at my earliest convenience. I don't own a market stall to nap the off hours in, so the ready surface of a market table isn't open to me. A refreshing dip in the river is out of the question. I'd sooner bathe in primary sewage treatment plant effluent-at least the chunks won't be floating about. Finally, the Asian refuge of home is exactly the place I'm madly trying to escape since my home is filled to the gills with farang.

1:52 Tanya House; Chiang Mai-Thailand :: 26 APR 95

And yet, home is where I go. It's inevitable, really. The most popular budget accommodation always offers that quiet place to unwind and contemplate your next move. A dozen or so tables usually well off busy streets so they're quiet. Soft drinks, beer, familiar sorta-western munchies (Asian attempts at western preparation are, shall we say, 'creative') and a few humble examples of local fare. You can sit there reading for hours and never feel compelled to buy a thing, which is just as well since the prices are inflated even by tourist trap standards.

And even though they're not the people you came to meet, most farangs have an interesting story to tell. Which is just as well since many are dying to tell it. Remarkably, other travelers provide the greatest hazard to my computer writing time. Locals gawk, ask a few questions then, usually, leave you to it. Westerners use the rarity of a budget traveler carrying a notebook computer to start a conversation. After a couple of minutes I just power down.

I don't often mind the intrusion. After explaining why I'm lugging around 3 kilos of electronic support I take the opportunity to ask alot of questions myself. Where do they come from? Where do they go? What are they seeking? What did they expect? What do they think? Intrepid explorer of human nature that I am, I never tire of hearing the often fascinating answers. "Why are you climbing Kinabalu?" I ask. "Because nobody believed we'd do it, least of all us," came the reply. To another, "What's the best thing you've done?" "Hmmmm, studying Tai Chi with a Taoist master. He exists within different laws of physics." And a friendly, giddy German told me he travels, "because the most important thing you can do with your life is learn about other people," how they live, what they think, what they want-who they are.

I'm not sure what it is about strapping on a back-pack but that simple act seems to filter out the 'ugly' tourists, or at least the ugliest ones. Budget travel isn't for the Club Med and coach-tour types. Too little luxury; too little itinerary; nobody to tell you when to take photographs. Most backpackers live a little closer to the bone. Even the ones patronising those horrid burger joints. Most backpackers measure the length of their journey in months as opposed to the tourist's weeks or even days. Most backpackers can tell you where they're going for the next couple of weeks; sometimes they actually get there though usually something more inviting draws them away. Coach tour people can tell you what they'll be doing at 10AM next Tuesday. If given a pop-quiz at the end of the week, they'd probably not be able to explain with any detail the historical/cultural meaning or significance of any place they'd taken pictures of. Travelers don't know where they're going; tourists don't know where they've been.

21:59 Charlie's House; Pai-Thailand :: 26 APR 95

My redemption from being just another 'Masshole' comes via the recognition that I am a traveler, not a tourist. My intention, my traveling raison d'être is to learn about the people who live where I go. I avoid 'cultural exhibitions' produced by governments, chambers of commerce or any other organization not owned and operated by members of the culture being exhibited. I refuse to patronise 'freak shows' and other circuses where you pay money to take pictures of people with elongated necks, stretched lips or bones poked through their noses. I think of the hapless victims of David Letterman's ohhh, so cynical Stupid Human Tricks. Real culture is neither staged nor purchased. If I am invited out of goodwill or otherwise made welcome to visit with such people, I will gladly accept the hospitality. If it feels right, I'll ask to take their picture or perhaps show them some video of themselves. Though not always successful, I try very hard to be discreet with my camera and camcorder.

I am not a tourist and neither are most of the backpackers I share hostels and guest houses with. Most of the time 'at home' is spent either sleeping or in repose between excursions. I spend most hours of the day away from the guest house, checking out the local's scene, and know that the few waking hours spent there relaxing are necessary to my mental health. Since I need those quiet times, it's unwise to castigate myself for perhaps missing opportunities for new experiences. I learn much about places to go and how to get there from other travelers and I learn alot about people in general.

9:17 Charlie's House; Pai-Thailand :: 27 APR 95

I just have to be careful about being too comfortable, growing lazy and hanging around the guest house. I remind myself often that I'm traveling, not on vacation. But every now and then it's good to take a break from confronting otherness.

Continued in the Epilogue

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --

A man noticed that his axe was missing. Then he saw the neighbour's son pass by. The boy looked like a thief, walked like a thief, behaved like a thief. Later that day, the man found his axe where he had left it the day before. The next time he saw the neighbour's son, the boy looked, walked, and behaved like an honest, ordinary boy.
  graphical element Lieh-tse
Taoist writer.