I realize that I haven’t posted in a while, but I have been in Thailand for the past 10 days and I have found it difficult to find the time. I realize that this is meant to be a blog about my experiences in South Africa, but it’s also a travel blog so what the heck. It’s also my travel blog, so I think I should be able to do what ever I want with it 😉
I am here for the Tourism Paradoxes conference, which is a small gathering of people who like to think about tourism and the ways that it shapes our world. I presented about my work in South Africa which was very well received and I got lots of great questions and suggestions for how to engage with shame productively in my work. And Hazel Tucker was there! Hazel Tucker came to my presentation – eeeep!!
It has been a wonderful experience travelling around Bangkok and Chiang Mai. It is funny because I have had very little interest in travelling in Asia in general – I have been too smitten with Africa in recent years, but also because I feel as though Thailand has been ‘done’ in a way. Like, it was the hip happening place to trip to when I was about 20, but it’s been done (even if – like myself- you’ve never actually been before). And of course there are lots of implications of this. What happens to a place when everyone and their brother decides that it is the ‘it’ place to check out, and then, in turn, what happens when that same demographic decides that that scene is played out and they move on to a newly discovered locale?
At any rate, I have had a wonderful time checking out the temples, I have had a borderline obscene number of massages, I have eaten myself silly, and I have loved reconnecting with old friends and meeting thoughtful and inspiring people who share a real passion for changing the world for the better (Salut Emmanuelle!). The scenery and the people are beautiful and warm (actually, the weather has been hotter than the seventh ring of hell) and I have thoroughly enjoyed my vacation.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the signs:
And I am also getting a kick out the phone booths. They’re like a funky blast from the past:
I am less enjoying all of the middle-aged white men accompanied by young Thai women. Although it is possible that my Western feminist perspective is imposing a lack of agency on women in the developing world, constructing them as being less empowered than myself
I will say that something really did surprise me about this conference this week. Despite the fact that everyone there is involved in the study of tourism and most, if not all, are concerned with social justice and the impacts of tourism, the touristic activities that we participated in were very much run-of-the-mill. Take the location for our gala dinner, for instance. This was a beautiful outdoor restaurant and the food was wonderful, but over the course of the dinner we were entertained by ‘traditional dancers’ performing specifically for our group. There is nothing wrong with this, I don’t think, but seems to me to be exactly the sort of commodification of culture that we theorize about so extensively.
Likewise, the following day a group of us loaded up into a large coach bus and went on a handicrafts tour. At each site (an umbrella making site, a silk making site, and a silver shop) we descended from the bus, were trouped through to see how the products were made, and then bought the handicrafts that were on offer. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this – income is created for local people and we learn something about local craft skills. And I also want to say that I in no way wish to critique the organizers, who planned this entire event from multiple different countries (not Thailand) in their ‘spare time,’ and the experiences were lots of fun. I just found a bit of a disconnect between what we research and critique, and then what we choose to do when we gather as tourists.
We did also have a brief visit to an organic farm, where some local guys had a good laugh, presumably at Juliane and her melon:
“I carried a watermelon?!” came up frequently after this 😉
The other thing that sort of blew me away was that there was a stack of pamphlets with tour options for us to sign up for on our free day, and one of the conference participants approached myself and another woman and showed us an ad for a tour featuring stops at 5 different tribal villages in one afternoon, including a stop to see the so-called ‘long-necked’ Karen people. Again, we’re critical tourism scholars. Both myself and my friend were a little horrified that this person would be interested in participating in such a tour, as these kinds of tours don’t allow tourists to engage with the people they are visiting or share in any kind of mutual exchanges, but seem to involve little more than descending on a village, snapping the obligatory photos to show the folks back home, then loading back onto the bus. It is particularly troubling in the case of the Karen whom, I am led to understand, have little (if any) legal status in Thailand, do not have access to passports, and many villages have seen a significant exodus of younger adults who do not want to be part of the tours (if you’re interested, check out Malia’s great blog posting about having visited the Karen and reflecting upon it afterwards on Twenty-something Travel). Again, I’m not trying to be judgmental or tell people what they can and can’t do as tourists, but I think that it is often easy to get swept away in an exotic new locale and forget that there are real people who are impacted by the choices that tourists make. And elephants. And tigers. I found a good resource, if anyone is interested, for how to try to make sure that your visit with tribal people is done in a respectful way at All Thailand Experiences.
And because I hate to end on a negative note, the food here is marvelous (as if there was ever any doubt!). I’m participating in a cooking class tomorrow morning and then (hopefully) jogging back to my hotel room afterwards.