Friday, 17 May 2013

"Exotic" Thailand Part 1: Stop telling me to get drunk on some island

Bangkok, net exporter
of sunsets

To "exoticise" means to treat something as exotic, when it really isn't.

I have seen so many examples of people exoticising Thailand in the last 3 weeks. Many people seem to have difficulty thinking of Thailand and Bangkok as a real place, and no-one realises they are doing it.

"Sex in the blood"

An example: On my first visit to Thailand in 2003, I wound up on Koh Phangan (where the Full Moon Parties happen) with an American guy who told me: "Thai girls have sex in the blood".

Part of me wanted to selfishly believe it, but in the back of my mind, I knew I couldn't. Growing up, I understood that the reality is Thai people are no more sexual than European, African, Japanese, Australian, whatever.

Like many Westerners, this guy just wanted to believe it, to justify his version of the small amount he had seen of Thailand - and to justify his attitude towards Thai girls.

Spin forward 10 years. My previous blog post mentioned how angry people got when I said I was just staying in Bangkok, not visiting Chiang Mai or getting drunk on some island. Even when I said that I had already done those things in 2003, people were still actually upset.

The Chao Phraya River,
not that ugly really
"Bangkok's so ugly"

I think many people found it difficult because it didn't fit with their idea of Thailand, from what they knew from their friends and their own visits. Thailand is a holiday destination. You go there on holiday. Holidays mean beautiful beaches and snorkelling and riding elephants, not hanging out in an "ugly" city.

"Bangkok's so big and dirty."

Bangkok - not too dirty for squirrels
Actually Bangkok is much cleaner and more modern than even 10 years ago. The Skytrain system (BTS) has 2 lines now, and there is a brand new shiny underground line (MRT) - which every single person I've met has described as "so clean".

Mostly backpackers just see Khao San Road and the backpacker ghetto, which is pretty dirty and smelly, but doesn't give a fair image of the rest of the city.

"It's too hot to wear trousers!"

How do you tell an ex-pat from a backpacker? Ex-pats wear trousers.

Typical Thai desert in a mall.
I have no idea what it is, but it was good
Backpackers often travel through Thailand wearing ragged clothes that don't cover very much, treating the whole of Thailand like a cross between their bedroom and one giant beach.

I hear travellers say "but it's too hot to wear trousers!" Well sure it's 35-38 degrees (C) in the daytime, which is pretty warm. Maybe it's more comfortable wearing shorts.

But the ex-pats and the Thais wear trousers most of the time. Why? Because they're not on holiday. You wear trousers when you go to work or a bar. You wear shorts when you're on holiday.

Go to the islands because they're pretty

I got this Facebook comment from a friend visiting Thailand: "I can't believe you're staying in Bangkok! Come to Koh Lipe, it's paradise!"

I would love to visit Koh Lipe some time, it looks lovely. But it's "paradise" if you want to lie around on a beach, drink cocktails, go snorkelling (probably best not in that order) - and not much else.

Koh Lipe, like many of the "beautiful" islands in Thailand, is the kind of place you can only go to on holiday. If you're not on holiday, I think an island that you can walk round in 1 hour could be kind of boring after you finish taking photos.

You can't eat a burger in Thailand

One friend I met was surprised when I said I had a great burger last night.

Thailand has an awesome collection
of chip (crisp) flavours
The fact is, Escapade Burgers and Shakes is a funky little bar that makes really damn good food - which Thais enjoy. In fact I only saw 1 group of Westerners there at all.

I absolutely agree with trying all kinds of food in a foreign country that you'd never try back home. Thailand is rightly famous for amazing food and I love it.

But Bangkok is a big city with lots of different places, and Thais like to eat different food. Going to an upmarket burger bar (just 5mins from Khao San Road, by the way) is actually a totally normal thing for those Thais who can afford it. And like eating burgers.

City breaks are for Europe, not Asia

Jazz Happens! bar.
Where jazz actually happens
Everyone gets the idea of a city break - it's very common in Europe to go to another European city for a holiday. Okay, mostly these are just for a weekend, not 3 weeks. But Asia is tropical and exotic. Why would you stay in a city?

Maybe it's a matter of distance. Asia might be cheaper to get to now, and more people are coming - but it's still a long way. Why would you go all that way just to stay in a city?

Maybe it's also a matter of marketing. As Asian cities develop and become "nicer" to Western tastes, they'll be able to market themselves as actual destinations - places you enjoy - rather than somewhere to stop between your rainforest trek and Full Moon Party.

You need exoticism when you go on holiday

Dragons in the park
In fairness, you need to exoticise when you go on holiday. Your holiday time and money is precious - you've spent 48-50 weeks working in a job you hate so you can go away and get drunk somewhere hot and sunny. It's not healthy but that's what we're taught to aspire to.

You certainly don't want to think about how Thailand's year is currently 2556, or that people go jogging in Lumpini Park when it's 30 degrees (past monitor lizards), or that in public spaces across the country people stand still for the Thai national anthem at 8am and 6pm every day.

These are things which don't fit the story of Thailand as a place for you to enjoy yourself.

Let's try not to take it personally

Maybe I took people's reactions and attitudes towards Bangkok personally, just like they took my staying here personally. It has felt a bit like people telling me what to do, which I really don't like. I'm simply not on holiday. Maybe I should be.

Thai television talent contest
between the malls
But I really do think there is an exoticism attached to Thailand (and Asia, and other "exotic" travel destinations). People struggle to think about it as a real place where ordinary people do ordinary things, because all they hear and see and know is stereotypes of old men buying ladyboys and pre-uni kids on their gap yah.

I certainly don't have a problem with going on holiday, or getting drunk (I've been out partying in Bangkok several times). If it's your first time in Thailand, of course you want to see everything and do everything - especially if you're 19 on your gap year like I was. If it's the only time you'll ever visit Thailand, sure, you want to squeeze in as many experiences as you can.

But don't think that it's the only time you ever could visit Thailand. Unless World War 3 breaks out, or fossil fuels run out tomorrow, it's safe to assume you could probably save up and come back to Thailand any time you like. Global travel is not "once-in-a-lifetime" like it used to be.

I wouldn't expect wide-eyed 18-year-olds sharing tequila buckets to know any better. I'm more frustrated when I hear people 25, 30, even way up to middle age - people who frankly should know a bit about the world - reinforcing and regurgitating these ideas: Thailand is a holiday destinaton; Thailand is not a real place; Bangkok has nothing to offer; Thai people are fundamentally different.

No. None of these things are true.
Thailand is a normal place where normal people live and do normal people things.

Part 2 of 2 will be some examples of how Bangkok is a real place, and actually not unpleasant to stay in.

2 comments:

  1. Yes, I like this post. Well written, Jez!

    ReplyDelete
  2. A great glimpse into travel and Thailand. Thanks, Jez. Looking forward to Part 2.

    I'd also like a post on Jez's schedule for 2013 and beyond.

    ReplyDelete