Friday, October 23, 2009

Will the Real Thailand Please Stand Up?

In a tiny village 2 hours north of Chiang Mai, a fellow tourist turned to me and said, “Now this is the Real Thailand.” The thought struck me as odd. What does that mean about the rest of Thailand? That it’s not real?

But I got her gist. She meant that because this village is removed from busy city life, it is more authentic in some way. That old traditions are slower to vanish high in the hills. That the way of life of villagers is a glimpse into Thailand’s past.

I agree to an extent, but I don’t think it’s quite that clear or simple to define what is “real.” Outside a straw hut, with pigs roaming in the yard and rice growing in the fields, there was a satellite dish. MTV and CNN now flash before the villagers’ eyes nightly. Call it modernization, Westernization or globalization… they all indicate the same phenomenon: influence of the new on the old. Although the old women of the village still dress in the traditional costume, the young people wear Adidas and Levis.

In a former life at Reed College, I read many versions of this same story. Anthopologists tend to seek out the most remote, isolated, “authentic” cultures. There is a desire to understand ways of life so completely foreign and removed from mainstream society. But there are very few places in the world where MTV and Levis don’t exist. And I sort of find the whole thing a little ironic. It’s as if Westerners are searching for the most remote and removed people to get a glimpse into the “real” way of life, and the people who live in these places are longing for Western influence to understand what’s current and cool. It’s a viscous cycle, because once the isolated village is discovered, it is no longer isolated.

I’ll stop with the academics for a minute and get to the point. I think the “real” Thailand is everywhere, not just tucked away on a dirt road up in the jungle. The real Thailand for me is the kindness of the people, the way they greet you with sincerity. It’s removing your shoes when you walk into a store or covering your shoulders when you enter a temple to signify respect. The real Thailand is the women parked in front of their massage parlors, hollering “Massage for yoooouuu, I give you good price” in their nasally English. It’s the chaotic markets and street food vendors displaying their dried squid like badges of honor. It’s everything and everywhere.

After 25 days in this amazing country, I will say goodbye tomorrow. I will head north and spend one last night on the edge of Thailand before entering Laos and cruising on a slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prapang. Thailand is beautiful country and I hope someday I can return to uncover more of its magic. But until then, I just want to say thanks Thailand… for keeping it real.


  1. You came, you saw and it sounds like you found Thailand. Love the pics Dad

  2. Let's pray that East and West continue to meet but never merge. They may, on occasion, want Big Macs but I much prefer shrimp with pineapple and basil in red curry sauce!

  3. Great reflection on finding your "real" Thailand. Thailand, and I guess just travelling in general, holds something different for everyone, I like this perspective.

    Safe travels, can't wait for your take on Laos.

    "Beer Laos! Beer Laos!"