One of the most striking things for me in visiting Thailand was how easy it was to adapt. I speak absolutely no Thai (despite an attempt to teach myself some basics and my feeble efforts to get a few words out correctly while conversing), but it wasn’t a problem thanks to English’s appearance in practically every sign and poster of importance. I’m not Buddhist nor Asian nor can I tolerate more than a few chili peppers in my papaya salad. Yet at this point in my life, having travelled to more than a few countries, and seen more than few foreign cultures, I guess it doesn’t take long to adapt to a new one. At the risk of sounding like I work for Bennetton, we’re all, after all, human beings.
This is a useful trait, of course, but it comes with a bit of sadness. I distinctly remember travelling overseas as a kid and diving into a culture with wide-eyed wonder. I did the backpacking thing for six weeks after college, and I felt the same thing, though by that point it was slipping away. I tried to hold on, but couldn’t. It’s an unfair trade, innocence for experience, and while each has its merits, a surfeit of one will make you yearn for the other.
One unquestioned benefit of experience is the increasing clarity of purpose that each trip brings. We learn, on each successive vacation, what time of touring and travel makes us happy, and which parts drive us nuts. Costa Rica taught us that a local’s guide to the history and culture of a region is important to us, and we’re not going to be able to get that on our own. Curaçao taught us there’s a time when it’s useful to simply shut off the syanpses and relax on the beach. When preparing for Thailand, we knew we wanted more of the former than the latter, and we spent a great deal of time formulating the proper itinerary. One big question was unanswerable, and that was: are we going to feel like tourists?
It’s a question that I struggle with, because even if I can determine the answer, I’m often not able to determine if it’s a bad thing. We know that when we travel, we want the authentic experience, not the experience that’s pre-selected for tender sensibilities. And yet, such a thing is impossible by design. We are not natives, we are tourists, and short of learning the language and living in Thailand for a few months to fully understand the culture, we’re going to just be passing through.
So how to best enjoy our time while we’re there? We answer that by first realizing that many places in the world — and Bangkok’s near the top of that list — thrive precisely because of passers-through. And they arrange destinations like massage parlors and elephant camps and textile factories to showcase the features of the region so one can appreciate it all in a just a few days or weeks, if one’s lucky. Then we admit we’re tourists, and do what we can — hire local guides, learn about local culture, eat local food, buy local products — to understand our destination without having the luxury of immersing ourselves in it fully.
It’s a tough line to walk, between the desire to be a tourist and the feeling of being too touristy. I haven’t entirely figured it out yet. There are times when it’s very difficult to avoid feeling like a voyeur, like you’re peeking in on these people’s lives for a few minutes, burning it onto digital memory, then moving on. Yet we must move on, if we want to see all we want to see in the short time we have. We can’t all quit our jobs and travel the world for months — as appealing as that is — nor should we feel these faraway destinations are only open for the untethered, vagabonding type.
What gives me ease is the knowledge that the Thais are proud of who they are, and most are proud to show it off to whoever’ll listen. If one is respectful and shows an interest that’s authentic, as I believe we did, then one should feel free to travel as much as one can. There’s a lot out there to see, and time, unfortunately, is short.