A brief detour to Thailand

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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.IMG_3647

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I have thoroughly enjoyed the signs:IMG_3848

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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:IMG_3804

“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.

19 thoughts on “A brief detour to Thailand

  1. Sounds like a very interesting little detour! Like you, for whatever reason, I have little idea to travel to Asia. Having said they, I know a number of people who have done so & thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

    Such interesting points you bring up in regards to concerns about the impact tourism brings to communities &/or villages. I think it is a very complex issue & I honestly am not certain what the right answer is. Some of my most memorable experiences in travelling have been when we connect with individuals living in the place we are visiting, understanding a little more about their culture & their challenges.

    Looking forward to reading more about your journey!

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    • Thanks Lynn, I agree with you wholeheartedly about the experiences in meeting people in travels being some of the greatest and most memorable. I love being able to be in a room with lots of thoughtful people to discuss all of these complexities about travel 🙂

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  2. Meghan, as usual your reflections have left me with more ethical dilemmas to chew on. Your thoughtful consideration of the impact we make when we are experiencing new locales and cultures help me to be more aware of the footprint travelling leaves on those who live there. I love reading your blog, as it makes me feel as though I am travelling along with you. And your photos are spectacular!

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  3. Very interesting post, Meghan. To be honest, I would be more excited to meet Meghan than Hazel Tucker! 😉
    I don’t mind visiting some local stores, but I do have problem when my tour guide is more interested in taking us to shop than taking us for sightseeing.

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    • Hahaha, thanks Helen!! And I agree with you – interestingly enough the point that you raise was also discussed by none other than Hazel Tucker 😉 about what happens in the tourism encounter when the host doesn’t have enough awareness of what tourists are looking for in order to make sure that they are having a good experience before trying to sell to them. I don’t mind, but it makes the stuff you feel compelled to buy much less interesting in the long run.

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  4. Interesting post: especially your reflections on the conference goals versus the activities offered to participants. That would make a really good paper, except you’d be writing about colleagues and people who would be peer-reviewing it, so fascinating but not career-enhancing. Cheers, Su.

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  5. As always, you’ve written a post that’s very thought provoking especially since I’ll be embarking on my own journey to Thailand later this year. I have several big gaping holes in my exploration of this world and all of Asia is one of them.

    I really liked Helen’s comment about a tour that’s designed to have you shop.

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    • Thanks so much – and that’s exciting that you’ll be coming here! Thailand is the first really highly developed tourist destination I have been to since beginning my studies and it has been really interesting to think about all of the implications of that. I can’t wait to hear about your thoughts on being here!!

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      • My version of Thailand will likely be quite different since I’ll be seeing the country from a bicycle seat.
        What I like about it is that I’ll be mostly in the countryside off the beaten track.
        We can compare notes this summer 🙂

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  6. Darling! Every post sparks so much in my mind! And, damn, you look hot in those pics! Hazel Tucker! Hazel Tucker! Hazel Tucker! Read her article as you suggested (love the links to longer thoughts in your posts – like how to respectfully interact with people while touring – oh, how many mistakes I’ve made!). Thoughts included: shame as productive/transformative/a starting point – what a revelation!gender dynamics among certain populations = women lack access to tourism $ = lack of “finesse” in managing/guiding tourist interactions”shame illuminates . . . our desire to be connected with others . . . and the knowledge that . . . we will sometimes fail in our attempts to maintain these connections”shame manifests in the body – suddenly see why rum is constantly offered on any all-inclusive “reality excursion”again, I think about the Dominican tourists throwing candy and toys from the tour bus – they experienced this as joyful and did not seem to feel any shame – is information/education/a lack of naivety necessary in order to feel shame?shame as opening a “moral gateway” but, for this to exist, tourists must acknowledge shame and “the toured” need to possess some skills to allow for transformation. Immediately I think of the way Canada mobilized for Syria after the photo of Alan Kurdi, but no mobilization after pics of 1st nations kids sniffing glue, or being moved from their communities because of dirty water. Is this because “we” are not implicated/do not share a history with Syria so we can jump in and rescue? It is incredible to me that the federal government seems to be leading the way in terms of “reconciliation” (as opposed to the populace stamping their feet which seems to precede other policy initiatives) and, yet, Justin completely echoed my heart when he stated that that there is no more important relationship to Canadians than that with 1st Nations communities. Have we been paralyzed by shame? Is this our moral gateway? Tucker notes that some Goreme men seem to possess the “skills” necessary for the gateway to open – I cannot wait to hear if you feel that some of your township stay hosts have this (not that it’s their job absolve our guilt, etc. etc.).Contemporary field work as “both slightly alienated and slightly paranoid in ways that are both inevitable and productive” – sounds like a typical day at the office, eh Megs? I SO WISH I could have heard you at the conference and am so thrilled (although completely unsurprised) that it was well received. It does make you think – if these are the activities being offered to tourism scholars . . . OMG – the food the food the food! Side bar – A friend of mine just returned from a trip from Cuba. He had brought little bouncing balls to give to kids. On his last day, he approached a some adults who were watching their kids playing and asked/gestured if he could give their kid a ball. They assented. He gave the kid the ball. The kid started playing with it. The adults said he had to give them $10. No pictures were taken. A fair exchange? The “authentic” experience of giving a Cuban kid a ball for $10? My friend was irritated. I thought of you.

    xoxo Annie

    Date: Sun, 10 Apr 2016 17:01:47 +0000 To: muldoonannie@hotmail.com

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    • Oh Ann, thanks so much for your feedback!! As always you have given me so much to think about further, and I am so pleased that you liked the Hazel Tucker article as much as I did!! I cited that same quotation about research being a site of paranoia in my presentation! And I think you raise some really interesting points about the productive role of shame in tourism. I wish I had your experience in the Caribbean and Central America, because I feel like this is a space often frequented by North Americans who want to do the ‘right thing’ when they travel, and maybe do things believing that this is what they are doing without critically evaluating things from another perspective. I remember being told to bring pennies and Canadian lapel pins to give to kids, and never questioned whether or not this was a ‘good’ thing to do. And I love your friend’s story of having been charged $10 for his gift. I think Hazel (gah, I’m not speaking for her – I think me, thinking about what I am taking from her working) would consider that to have been a missed chance for a real learning opportunity on both sides, had the hosts known how to navigate that space. And I too have begun making tentative connections between our collective feeling of shame and the lack of action on demanding humane living conditions in Native communities. I can’t wait to see you this summer and spend some really quality patio time digging into some of these issues with you – after all this ‘work’ I will need some R&R in the capital region I think! And don’t think I have forgotten about my offer for you to guest host a (or many) posting(s). You have an awesome perspective and you are a great writer and I would love to see how to tear into this stuff. You’re all kinds of awesome xox

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  7. What a great sounding conference and area of study you’re into and so many contradictions and dilemmas you raise! I share your Western feminist repugnance at the older white men with the lovely young local on his arm – happens in so many parts of the world where there are poorer communities…is there really any doubt that this is exploitative? One travel issue I have is that I have always been confused about how to deal with begging children especially since they are often controlled by a hidden adult – I’m sure you’ve seen that many of the places you’ve been. I was once in Mozambique with a Portuguese speaking coworker who spoke to children politely and comfortably in a way, even if I had the language, I’m not sure I could do. Really enjoying your posts.

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    • Hi, thanks so much for the positive feedback! The Thailand conference was amazing and I learned a lot. Unlike more mainstream tourism conferences, which tend to focus on marketing and industry-related topics, this small group of people is more interested in looking at the socio-cultural and environmental impacts of tourism. This one in particular was focused on paradoxes, so for instance, how we are drawn to physically beautiful spaces, but our being there as tourists leads to their destruction. Or how international tourism brings different people together, but then can also lead to conflict and Othering due to misunderstandings and discomfort. Lots of the issues that I try to wrestle with myself in this blog 🙂 It’s a fascinating subject for me, full of excitement and moral complexity, but always leading back to the GIANT objective of making tourism better for everyone 🙂 And I love your writing and photos too!

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  8. Thanks for your reply and for the compliment! I would be interested in attending one of those type of conferences one day too. Have you heard of Destiny Rescue? They seemed to be a good organization helping young girls in Southeast Asia.

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    • I haven’t heard of that particular organization, but I am so glad to learn about the work they are doing. Such a gross and tragic downside to tourism 😦 I can always keep you posted if any of these conferences are taking place close to your area, if you like.

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